When journalist Charles Glass appeared—unshaven and wearing a blue T-shirt and track pants—at the front desk of a Beirut hotel and told his story last week, his dramatic escape after 62 days of captivity by Shiite zealots at first seemed to have been a display of individual courage and resourcefulness. “He’s better than James Bond,” boasted Glass’s nine-year-old son, George, in London. But when both Damascus and Washington intimated within hours that Glass owed his freedom as much to diplomatic pressure as to his own efforts, the former ABC TV correspondent’s image as hostage-hero appeared to shrink to that of a pawn in a Middle East power play. By week’s end, there was mounting evidence that, however daring the 36-year-old American reporter’s escape, it had served largely to further Syria’s attempts to restore relations with the West—and American efforts to weaken Syria’s links with Iran.
Glass became the 25th Western hostage in Lebanon on June 17, when gunmen seized him in a southern district of Beirut. A group calling itself the Organization for Defending the Free People—believed to be supported by Iran—later claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, and on July 7 they released a videotape in which Glass—at gunpoint, he said last week—confessed to working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
But early on Aug. 18, Glass said, he was able to slip free from his chains and evade his guards by creeping along a balcony to an unoccupied room of the seventhfloor apartment where he was being held. Glass said that he locked the apartment door, confining his sleeping captors inside, before running downstairs to the street and throwing away the key. Then, posing as a Canadian of Lebanese descent, Glass begged a ride to Beirut’s Summerland Hotel where he told a startled desk clerk: “I am Charlie Glass. I need a place to hide.” Minutes later officers of the Syrian Army peacekeeping force in Beirut arrived and drove him to Damascus.
But as Glass flew home to London for a reunion with his English wife, Fiona, and their five children, the Syrian government-controlled press agency SANA claimed that his kidnappers had, in
fact, “facilitated” his escape, choosing that method of releasing him rather than appearing to be under orders from Damascus. The Syrian claim gained credence when an American official told reporters that Syria had been negotiating with Iran for Glass’s freedom for several weeks.
In fact, Syria had strong reasons for taking credit for Glass’s release. In recent months President Hafez al-Assad has appeared increasingly anxious to improve his strained relations with the West, especially the United States. The Damascus regime’s isolation dates from October, 1986, when Britain broke off
diplomatic relations over evidence that Syrian air force intelligence was behind a foiled attempt to place a bomb aboard an Israeli El Al jet in London. The United States swiftly supported Britain’s action by pulling its own ambassador out of Damascus, while Canada also temporarily recalled its ambassador. The following month West Germany, citing Syria’s role in a March, 1986, bombing of the German-Arab Friendship Society in Berlin, also downgraded relations, and the United States and the European Community imposed trade sanctions on Syria.
But since then several events have soured relations between Syria and Iran, leading Damascus to try to draw closer to the West. According to diplomatic sources, Assad was outraged by
revelations that Iran had purchased arms from Israel. He was angered again when Iranian-backed radicals captured Glass, casting doubt on Syria’s claim that it had pacified West Beirut after moving 7,000 troops into the city last February. Meanwhile, Syria’s economy was staggering under a $5.6-billion foreign debt and its dependency on a $700-million annual subsidy from Saudi Arabia, one of Washington’s closest Middle East friends. In an early gesture of accommodation, Assad demoted his chief of air force intelligence and also expelled the notorious Abu Nidal terrorist group. Now that Syria may,
indeed, have played a role in freeing Glass, the state department announced—only hours after his release— that U.S. Ambassador to Syria William Eagleton would soon return to his post.
Meanwhile, Glass took the opportunity of his first day of freedom at home to stroll with his family in a London park. He conceded that it was “entirely possible” that his captors might have connived at his escape, although “physically it did not seem that way.” He added that he would return to work on the book about Lebanon that he was researching at the time of his kidnapping. But he added that he would not be returning to West Beirut “for a generation.”
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