Middle East Hostages

August 10, 1991

If hostage-taking is coming at last to the same dead-end reached some time ago by airplane hijacking, both jailers and prisoners will be relieved of a dreadful curse. What Terry Anderson and other Western hostages in Lebanon have endured these past six years is beyond imagination. It is a glimpse into darkness. Yet they are not the only ones to whom release beckons tantalizingly. Nations and groups that have practiced terrorism have nothing to show for their bloody-mindedness save notoriety and the contempt of the civilized world. They, too, can break free.

It is ironic that two supposedly legitimate governments, in Syria and Iran, are behind current attempts to end the lawlessness they have encouraged and inspired for so long. Syria's government newspaper, Tishreen, says "this [effort] stems from a genuine humane stand and the belief that the abduction of individuals harms peoples' causes." This from a regime steeped in criminality.

The spiritual mentor of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah, Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, has discovered "there are no benefits for anyone in Lebanon and outside Lebanon to return to the kidnap methods." This from the umbrella organization behind most kidnappings of the past decade.

Compassion ranks low among those caught up in the turmoil and struggle of the Middle East. If Syria and Iran have decided they have nothing to gain and much to lose if hostage victims continue to languish in cruel isolation, theirs is a hard-nosed geo-political decision. The defeat of their mutual enemy, Iraq, and the triumph of their other mutual enemy, the United States, in the Persian Gulf war, led to the logical conclusion that the power constellation has changed dramatically.

The stakes now have risen to a point where all parties in the regional struggle, not least the United States, dare not let themselves be diverted by the guerrilla tactics of fanatics. Syria, having watched the Soviet position deteriorate, has decided to woo Washington even to the point of negotiating directly with Israel at a Middle East peace conference. Iran, $12 billion in debt, is led by a government seeking economic breakout before facing a frustrated electorate next spring. Israel, too, hints of an exchange of hundreds of Lebanese prisoners to secure the release of seven of its soldiers and Western hostages as well.

There will be desperate elements, most especially among the Palestinians, who will try to derail what they see as a runaway train to the sell-out of their cause. And they can cause plenty of disruption and trouble, as seen by the capture of a French hostage, Jerome Leyraud, after the release of Briton John McCarthy. But if Middle Eastern governments have reached the conclusion that atavistic behavior is hardly the way to lead their region into the twenty-first century, then there is hope for the hostages -- and for humanity.

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