DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Former President Jimmy Carter today said chances seem better than ever for the release of foreign hostages in Lebanon and that President Hafez Assad repeated vows to help win their freedom.

Carter made the comments to a news conference in the Syrian capital on the fifth anniversary of the kidnapping in west Beirut of American reporter Terry Anderson, the longest-held of the 18 Westerners missing in Lebanon.

''My own conviction is that more opportunities exist now for his release than ever before,'' Carter said.

He spoke shortly before he left Syria for Jordan, the third leg of a tour that carried him earlier to Egypt and will later take him to Israel.

Carter said he did not know if there were any secret U.S. dealings on the matter, but noted ''there are statements being made from Tehran that to me are encouraging.

''I think now there's a growing desire on the part of the Iranian government and the U.S. government to work out the problems between us,'' he said. ''There's no doubt that Iran has influence on those holding the hostages, although not complete control.''

Recent newspaper articles in Iran had suggested the hostages should be freed. Sheik Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual guide of Lebanon's Hezbollah, or Party of God, said in a sermon last month that a humanitarian means of freeing the hostages must be found.

Carter said the Saudi Arabian-brokered Taif accords for peace in Lebanon were ''a very constructive factor in the release of the hostages,'' although those agreements have met stiff resistance from several powerful factions in Lebanon.

''When it's no longer necessary for Lebanon to be fragmented, with different militia groups jealously guarding their weapons and their prerogatives, then I think it's very likely the hostages will be released,'' Carter said.

The tour, sponsored by the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta, is his fourth visit to the region since he left office in 1981.

Carter said he discussed the hostage issue during a meeting of several hours with Assad on Thursday.

He said Assad and other Syrian officials ''are using their good offices, they have assured me, in every way possible to both locate the hostages and convince those who might be holding them they should be protected and released.''

Although Syria has about 40,000 troops in Lebanon under an Arab League peacekeeping mandate, it has little influence with the Iranian-allied groups believed to be holding the hostages.

Carter said he supported the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate freely to Israel, a position at odds with that of Syria, but said he agreed with President Bush that they should not be allowed to settle in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights or east Jerusalem, territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.