The release of David Jacobsen, one of the American hostages in Lebanon, fits into a cunning ploy by which Syrian ruler Hafiz al-Asad attacks American interests with impunity.
The game has four invariable steps. First, the Syrian government engages in some outrageous act, usually involving terrorism, against Americans. Second, the United States government indicates strong displeasure, or even takes action against Damascus. Third - and this is key - Asad arranges the release of captive Americans, or makes publicized gestures to this end. Fourth, American public opinion is diverted and Washington scraps plans to retaliate against Syria.
This unmistakable pattern of Syrian behavior first appeared in July 1983. It followed two severe differences with the United States. In April 1983, Damascus was linked to the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. A month later, it undermined the Lebanese-Israel accord arranged by Secretary of State Shultz. To blunt U.S. anger, Asad released David Dodge, the acting president of the American University of Beirut. And, to make sure Asad personally got credit for Dodge's release, the White House was compelled to issue a statement that the U.S. was "grateful" for the "humanitarian" efforts of Hafiz al-Asad and his brother Rif'at.
Tensions rose again in late 1983, after top American politicians publicly accused the Syrian government of complicity in the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. A few weeks later U.S. planes attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon. The Syrian capture of a U.S. Navy pilot, Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman, was exploited with great skill to prevent any further U.S. military action against Syria. Goodman spent only a month in a Syrian jail; then he - a black - was handed over to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. This was a Syrian stroke of genius that capitalized simultaneously on racial tensions, domestic opposition to American use of force, and the U.S. presidential campaign. So expert was Syrian manipulation of U.S. public opinion, one analyst speculated that Asad was receiving Soviet advice. Goodman served the purpose well; the U.S. has not used force against Syria again.
Asad manipulated American opinion a third time in June 1985, when a TWA airliner was hijacked to Beirut. As it became clear that a Syrian-backed group, Amal, was holding the Americans, anti-Syrian sentiment grew in the United States. To head off trouble, the Asad government got the airplane re- leased. If Washington had plans to punish Syria, these were canceled, for as a White House official observed, "The Syrians were the ones who made it happen."
Investigations into last December's Vienna and Rome airport massacres revealed Syrian government complicity; again, Asad felt the weight of U.S. displeasure. Again he resorted to the same technique - only this time he did not even have to deliver an American hostage. The mere bustle of activity sufficed to appease Americans. As a result, Asad escaped unscathed. In contrast, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi - who never dissimulates or plays games like Asad - felt the brunt of U.S. anger.
This brings us to the most recent case. On October 24, Nizar Hindawi was convicted in London of attempting to blow up an El Al airplane. Moments later, the British government broke relations with Syria, citing the Asad government's proved collusion with Hindawi. The United States and Canada immediately withdrew their ambassadors from Damascus (in part, perhaps, because so many of their citizens were on the El Al plane). Amid discussion of further action against Syria, word came (almost predictably) that Mr. Jacobsen had been let go. No doubt, Asad hopes this will end his current confrontation with the United States.
While the Syrians are not the only ones to time precisely the return of hostages - remember how the 52 Americans in Iran were released at the very instant of Ronald Reagan's inauguration - Asad has refined this technique to a fine art. And so long as it benefits him, he will continue to use it. Of course, to keep the game going, he needs new hostages; thus, three more Americans were kidnapped in Lebanon in the last two months.
How can we stop him? Asad's clever use of the American hostages shows us that he has power over their fates. He can, therefore, be held responsible for their safety. The U.S. government needs to state that just as it held the Soviet authorities to account for Nicholas Daniloff, so must Syria answer for the American hostages in Lebanon. By making Asad liable, we change the rules of the game; rather than gain by release of the hostages, he pays a price for keeping them. This way, Damascus no longer benefits by manipulating the lives of Americans.