The fate of 18 foreign hostages in Lebanon - including nine Americans - is in the balance, as Syria ponders whether and how to restore order in the embattled southern suburbs of Beirut. Many of the hostages are believed to be held by the Iranian-backed Hizbullah or affiliated groups. Hizbullah fighters have won control of 80 percent of the area in battles with Amal, a rival, Syrian-backed mainstream Shiite movement.
The violence entered its 17th day yesterday. Six people died as the two groups exchanged mortar fire.
For more than a week, some 7,000 Syrian troops have been poised at the entrances to the suburbs, awaiting the command to impose a security plan.
But their deployment was delayed, as intensive discussions took place between Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese officials in Beirut and Damascus over terms and conditions for the Syrian move.
The plight of the hostages was high on the agenda in a lengthy meeting in Damascus on Saturday between President Hafez Assad and Vernon Walters, US ambassador to the United Nations.
Both Syrian and Iranian officials have publicly linked a resolution of the inter-Shiite battles with the hostage issue. It is also believed to be a major element in the complex, behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Asked about the fate of the hostages, a senior Iranian envoy in Beirut, Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Muhammad Besharati, said last week: ``I think that if we are able to end the current state of war ... the other question will be solved also.''
The main spokesman for the Syrian troops in Lebanon, intelligence chief Brig. Gen. Ghazi Kenaan, said Thursday that his forces were sure to go into the suburbs sooner or later. ``When they do, I hope there will be no hostages left, either in the suburbs or elsewhere,'' he added.
After his meeting with President Assad, Mr. Walters said he had not tried to influence Syria's decision on moving into the suburbs.
``I'm sure that President Assad, as a military man, is very aware of the possible dangers and advantages of such an action, and I did not attempt to influence his decision in one way or another,'' he said. ``The Syrians can make their own decision in this matter, since they know the situation better than we do.''
Mr. Assad was reported to have assured that he would do all he could to bring about the release of the hostages.
Iranian envoys initially resisted the idea of a Syrian deployment. But as the clashes continued and Shiite community and religious leaders issued further appeals for Syrian intervention, Iranian officials apparently accepted the principle, while arguing over the terms.
Beirut political sources say the plan the Syrians want to apply would be similar to that imposed in West Beirut early last year after violent street battles between Amal and the Druze militia. Armed irregulars would be banned from the streets, but political parties - including Hizbullah - would be allowed to pursue their political activities.
While some Hizbullah leaders have indicated they are not opposed to the deployment in principle, it is not yet clear whether they are ready to accept the curb that it would represent on their presence in what is now their last independent stronghold in Lebanon.
Last month, Amal drove Hizbullah out of most of its positions in the south of the country. Hizbullah has bases in the eastern Bekaa Valley, but the area is controlled by Syrian troops.
The Syrians are clearly reluctant to battle their way into the suburbs. But some well-placed sources believe they will do so as a last resort if a political solution cannot be reached.
``I think they are determined, and they cannot afford not to do it,'' said a senior Muslim politician in an interview. ``It's a matter of timing and preparation. I'm sure they would prefer to go in peacefully, but if no agreement is reached, they would have to do it in any case.''
If it should come to a last-resort confrontation, the Syrians would have to reckon on taking significant casualties in subduing the 2,000 to 3,000 heavily armed Hizbullah fighters, stiffened by some 300 Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are believed to be in the suburbs.
In such a situation, Syria might also risk losing its strategic alliance with Iran, based on their mutual hostility to Iraq. While that alliance has frequently been strained - often over tactical differences in Lebanon - both sides have so far tried to avoid a break.
But political sources in Beirut point to several strong reasons why Syria must act to control the situation in the suburbs.
Hizbullah's control of much of the area has put the radicals directly in contact with the Palestinian refugee camp of Borj el Barajneh, where Palestine Liberation Organization loyalists are hostile to both Amal and the Syrians. In recent fighting, followers of Yasser Arafat have wrested positions from the Syrian-backed breakaway PLO faction headed by Abu Musa.
The Syrians are also trying, with US diplomatic help, to stabilize Lebanon and win sufficient understanding between its estranged Christian and Muslim communities for presidential elections to be held in August.