SYRIA appears ready to assume an active role in the Mideast hostage crisis, but one that is likely to complicate an already complex situation. Syria promised UN envoy Marrack Goulding last week that it would suport efforts to secure freedom for 15 or so Westerners held in Lebanon. At the same time, Syrian officials implied that a resolution will require progress in solving the crisis in Lebanon.
Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara told Mr. Goulding in Damascus on Aug. 6, say Syrian officials, that a solution to the hostage crisis ``depended on a change in American policies in the area.''
Syria's allies have been even more pointed. Speaking in Damascus after talks with Goulding, the leader of the mainstream Shiite Amal movement, Nabih Berri, said: ``A solution to the hostage problem lies in solving the Lebanese crisis and changing the political system there.'' Amal is backed by Syria.
In his Aug. 4 sermon, Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani clearly linked the hostage issue with the wider crisis in Lebanon. ``There is a solution for Lebanon, a solution for freeing the hostages,'' he said. ``Take a sensible attitude and we will help solve the problems there, so that the peoples of the region can live in peace...''
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati is due to visit Syria Monday for talks expected to focus on the hostage crisis, it was announced Wednesday.
A Tehran newspaper close to the Foreign Ministry said Thursday that Iran and the United States were expected to begin indirect talks within a few days. The Tehran Times said talks would be conducted through a third country, probably Pakistan.
Syria's role as the main foreign power broker is under challenge by the country's defiant Christian community backed by Iraq. Damascus's help with the hostages may depend on a more sympathetic American attitude toward Syria's problems in Lebanon.
But on Wednesday, the US issued its most direct criticism yet of Syria's participation in battles that have ravaged Beirut almost without interruption since March.
``We call upon Syria, clearly a direct party in the fighting, and the various Lebanese factions for an immediate cease-fire and lifting of all blockades and the initiation of a dialogue for the political reconstruction of Lebanon,'' the US Embassy said in a statement issued in Christian east Beirut.
More than 560 people have been killed in rocket and artillery exchanges between the troops of Christian leader Gen. Michel Aoun and Syrian forces. General Aoun has vowed to expel some 40,000 Syrian soldiers who occupy two-thirds of Lebanon.
Syria has attempted over recent weeks to mobilize its Lebanese allies, and those of Iran, into a common effort against Aoun. Now it appears the hostage issue, too, is to be tied to that aim. Iran, believed to have the most influence on the Lebanese Shiites holding Western hostages, seems supportive of the Syrian approach.
The statement released by US hostage Joseph J. Cicippio's kidnappers on Aug. 6 made pointed reference to the mediation role they want Syria to play.
With such complications in mind, it was hardly surprising that UN envoy Goulding ended his trip to the region with the conclusion that a resolution of the hostage problem would require ``a long period of quiet and patient diplomacy.''
Goulding publicly urged Israel to release Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, whose abduction on July 28 triggered the current crisis. Israel is attempting to use Sheikh Obeid to bargain for the return of two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli airman believed captured by Lebanese Shiites in 1986.
``The Israeli operation to kidnap Obeid did not help,'' he said in Jerusalem. ``I do not believe Israel broke the deadlock'' over Shiite-held hostages.
Goulding made it clear that the UN would not try to negotiate the kind of prisoner exchange the Israelis envisage. The UN evidently does not want to compromise itself by equating a civilian cleric abducted from his home by foreign troops, with soldiers taken prisoner while on a mission outside their own borders.
Since the abduction of Obeid, the Iranian-backed Hizbullah has issued statements categorically ruling out an exchange involving the Israelis. Israeli leaders have portrayed this as an opening bargaining position, and reiterated their conviction that Hizbullah will negotiate a trade.
But Wednesday's suicide car bomb attack carried out by a Shiite cleric on an Israeli Army convoy in south Lebanon indicates that Hizbullah is apparently more interested in retaliation than negotiations.
The Islamic Resistance - an umbrella name covering actions against the Israelis by Hizbullah and other Iranian-backed groups - said the attack was ``the first practical response to the kidnapping of Sheikh Obeid,'' and pledged more.
Any Israeli retaliation to Wednesday's attack, which wounded five Israeli soldiers and one Lebanese militiaman, will make it even more difficult for anyone in the Shiite camp to argue for making a deal. But if Israel fails to respond, it could face a situation in which the only result of Obeid's abduction will be the unavenged shedding of Israeli blood.
Hizbullah leaders have appeared to hint that if Obeid were freed, they might take part in the negotiations and contacts they now reject. Hizbullah leaders deny any involvement in hostage-taking, but admit they have contact with the kidnap groups. ``We have no thought of any actions, contacts, or negotiations as long as he remains in captivity,'' said Sheikh Subhi Tufeili, one of the top Hizbullah leaders.