The Lebanese government is urging the United States to show more ''muscle'' in Lebanon. Lebanese officials do not say so openly at this point, but they imply that this should be done through an expanded role and presence of the US Marines in Lebanon. In their view, this may be required to deter the Syrian forces.
It is said that the only language the Syrians understand is action, not just words and warnings.
''Syria looks at the United States and they see this dormant giant,'' says Lebanon's ambassador to the US, Abdullah Bouhabib. ''So there is no deterrent for them.''
The Lebanese ambassador asserts that the fledgling Lebanese Army can deal with everything but the Syrian Army. He claims that the Syrians have been directly involved in the recent shelling in and around Beirut.
Four US marines have been killed in the shelling over the past two weeks, and experts on Lebanon are predicting a further escalation of the fighting between the Lebanese Army on the one side and Druze and Shiite militiamen on the other.
Ambassador Bouhabib says the marines have been targeted to intimidate the US and force it out of Lebanon.
US officials say that they cannot confirm that the marines have been targeted. They further say that they cannot confirm Lebanese reports that the Syrians have been directly involved in the shelling. But American and French jet fighters have flown over Beirut as a warning to the Syrians and other opponents of the Western-backed Lebanese government. According to White House spokesman Larry Speakes, the US Navy frigate Bowen fired four rounds Thursday at an unidentified artillery position. The marines stationed at Beirut airport also fired high-explosive shells at the positions.
''It could be a new ball game if the marines were under direct targeting,'' said a US State Department official.
But administration officials say they have not received any kind of formal request from the Lebanese government to expand the role of the multinational force in Beirut, which includes the US Marines. Officials said that an interagency working group on Lebanon chaired by the State Department continues to consider a wide range of options.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, White House spokesman Speakes said, ''We're continuing to review the situation, but there are no plans to change'' the mission or size of the 1,200-man US Marine force in Lebanon.
The White House finds itself in a delicate position on the issue of US involvement in Lebanon because of calls from senators and representatives for invocation of the War Powers Act. That act would require congressional approval for the marines to remain in Lebanon. Many ordinary Americans are wondering what good the marines are doing in Lebanon, and how long they will stay.
In an interview, Ambassador Bouhabib argued that Soviet-backed Syria, under the leadership of President Hafez Assad, wants to force the United States out of Lebanon so that ''they can have the whole area for themselves.''
''This is partly the price that Syria has to pay to the Soviet Union,'' Bouhabib said.
''I'm not saying that Syria is a Cuba for the Soviet Union,'' continued Bouhabib. ''No, Assad is his own man. But he has to pay the Soviets back for what they're giving him. One price is to get America out of Lebanon.''
The ambassador contended that a US withdrawal from Lebanon would mean a failure of US policy and initiatives in the entire region.
''More important, you would be creating out of Syria a regional superpower,'' said Bouhabib. ''There will be a lot of targets for Syria after Lebanon - first Jordan, then Iraq. Syria would be easily able to influence the Gulf. . . . And if you're going to adhere to the Carter doctrine in the Gulf, it's going to cost you more blood, and more money to go there and do the job.''
''In Lebanon, the Lebanese are fighting,'' said the ambassador. ''The people in the Gulf are not going to fight.''
Bouhabib asserted that the Soviet Union was ''very much interested'' in cutting off the West's lifeline from the Gulf - oil. He said Syria wanted to replace Egypt as the leading Arab power.
Bouhabib sees the present position of the marines in Lebanon as ''unacceptable,'' arguing that ''they cannot defend themselves.''
''Every time there is a voice here in the United States saying, 'Oh, let's get the marines home,' there are more shells being fired to encourage such voices,'' Bouhabib said. ''It's the same thing that's happening every time we get verbal support for Lebanon, saying the United States strongly supports Lebanon's sovereignty and independence, etc. We get more shells, because these statements are not translated into action.''
''I don't mean to say 'Use the marines,' '' the ambassador said. ''There may be no need to use the marines at all. We are very careful. . . . We all know what is the effect of the Vietnam war on US policy. But at the same time, there are a lot of muscles that have not been exercised by the United States.''
Bouhabib said that a lesson could be drawn from Israel's experience with Syria. He said in 1981 Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin repeatedly voiced support for Christian Lebanese being besieged by the Syrians at the town of Zahle.
''Every time Begin made a statement, we got more shells - until Begin acted, '' said Bouhabib. ''Begin knocked out two Syrian helicopters. . . . Syria stopped immediately. . . . They worked out an arrangement whereby Zahle was saved.''