Yesterday's release of the two Lebanese companions of Charles Glass seems to have left the fate of the kidnapped American journalist more dependent than ever on Syria's intentions toward Iranian-backed Shiite radicals in Lebanon. Pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim fundamentalists are believed to be responsible for abducting Mr. Glass and many other Western hostages still missing in Lebanon. Glass's case was unique among kidnap victims in that a Lebanese from a prominent Shiite family, Ali Osseiran, and his police driver, were detained with him.
The involvement of Mr. Osseiran, son of Lebanon's defense minister, made the abduction a burning issue within the Shiite community and ensured sustained attention by Lebanese political leaders.
Though top Lebanese officials have vowed to continue efforts to free Glass, some skeptics are already adding his name to the list of more than 25 long-term foreign hostages.
Analysts say that only the Syrians are in a position to exert serious pressures on the kidnappers. Syrian officers made no secret of their anger at what they saw as a flagrant challenge to the strict security plan their 7,000 troops have been imposing in west Beirut since February.
But whether the Syrians are ready to confront the Iranian-backed fundamentalists is another question.
After an incident in which 23 members of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah (Party of God) were killed by Syrian troops on the second day of their return to west Beirut, Hizbullah officials declared a ``red line'' around the Shiite southern suburbs for Syrians.
In deference to their strategic alliance with Iran against Iraq, the Syrians drew back from trying to enforce security in the suburbs. Iranian officials openly condemned what they called the ``massacre'' of the Hizbullah militants, and warned that the ``Islamic Resistance'' - a pseudonym for Hizbullah and related factions - must continue to enjoy freedom of action.
Although it has consistently denied hostage-taking, Hizbullah has often been blamed for abductions. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused it of seizing Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite while Mr. Waite was trying to negotiate the release of two American hostages held by the self-styled Islamic Jihad, an underground faction often linked to Hizbullah.
The figure most widely named as leader of Islamic Jihad is Imad Mughnieh, a young Shiite from a powerful clan in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Shiite sources say Mr. Mughnieh is a former right-hand man of Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual mentor of Hizbullah.
They add that Mughnieh's prime allegiance is to Iranian intelligence, although he is also said to have links with Syrian security circles. Some published reports have said Hizbullah's command structure is directly linked to the Tehran leadership. Some Lebanese sources believe that many kidnappings have been carried out on Iran's orders.
Hizbullah and related groups have provided an effective vehicle for the spread of Iranian influence in Lebanon, especially since the Israeli invasion of 1982, which had a fragmenting effect on Lebanon and a radicalizing impact on Shiites.
In 1982, several hundred Iranian Revolutionary Guards entered the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley. They remain there, preaching Islamic revolution and training Shiite radicals for operations against the Israelis in the south.
Analysts say the fundamentalists are in many ways Syria's natural enemies. Syria's socialist Baathist regime would clearly be averse to seeing a radical Islamic state emerge on its doorstep. Both at home and in northern Lebanon, Syrian troops have ruthlessly suppressed Sunni fundamentalist movements.
But Syria has always refrained from a showdown with Iranian-backed groups in Lebanon out of concern for the strategic Syrian-Iranian alliance. Some doubt has been cast on the future of that alliance, however, by tentative signs of rapprochement between Syria and Iraq.
But some Lebanese sources say the Syrians have now begun restricting the movements of both Hizbullah followers and Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Bekaa Valley. Street fighting has also broken out between Shiite gunmen in the southern suburbs, prompting speculation that hidden hands may be preparing the ground for the entry of Syrian troops in conditions similar to those prevailing when they entered west Beirut.
Political observers believe, however, that Syrian President Hafez Assad, with his reputation for shrewd pragmatism, would only risk his strategic alliance with Iran by tackling the Lebanese radicals if he judged the moment to be ripe for a shift in his country's regional orientation.