Two days ago, on Sunday, Dec. 4, two US fighter-bombers were shot down by Syrian antiaircraft fire over northern Lebanon. There were three men aboard the two planes. One got home safely, one was taken prisoner by the Syrians, and one was killed.
The American losses occurred during a bombing attack by 28 planes from two US aircraft carriers offshore against two Syrian antiaircraft batteries and a Syrian command center. According to a Washington government spokesman, the purpose of the raid was achieved. The Syrians reported no damage to military installations but two soldiers had been killed and 10 wounded.
The American bombing attack followed by one day unusually heavy Syrian antiaircraft fire against two US reconaissance planes scouting Syrian positions in northern Lebanon. Such scouting has been going on for several weeks. Previously there had been occasional light antiaircraft fire. Saturday, Dec. 3, was the first time the fire from the ground was heavy, and for the first time it included surface-to-air missiles known as SAMs.
The Sunday attack was intended as retaliation against the use of the SAMs by Syria on the previous day. Both President Reagan and lesser US government officials declared that the US does not intend to make war on Syria. But they said they would retaliate again if there are further attacks on US forces.
The shooting by both sides took place from or over Lebanese territory. No US bombs fell inside Syria. No Syrian batteries fired from inside Syria. Both US and Syrian forces are operating in Lebanon by invitation of the Lebanese government. The US invitation is recent. The Syrian invitation is old and has been withdrawn by the current Lebanese government.
The SAMs used by the Syrians have been provided to the Syrians by the Soviets. But the Soviet troops who came to Syria during the recent resupply of Syria by Moscow are believed to be exclusively inside Syria itself.
Therefore as long as no missiles are fired from SAM batteries inside Syria and as long as no US bombs are aimed at those batteries inside Syria, it is presumed that there will not be direct conflict between US and Soviet armed forces.
The story really began on Oct. 23 when a truck loaded with high explosives blew itself up inside a US Marine base on the south side of Beirut, killing 239 US servicemen. A second truck broke into a nearby French Army compound at the same time killing about 60 soldiers. A third suicide truck broke into an Israeli command post in Tyre on Nov. 4.
President Reagan ordered an increase in US forces in and near Lebanon following the Oct. 23 bombing. By Nov. 5, three US aircraft carriers were patrolling off the Lebanese coast. Routine scouting of Syrian positions began then.
Previous to last Sunday the French and Israelis had retaliated for the attacks on their forces by bombing centers in northern Lebanon used by irregular units of both Iranian and Shiite Muslims. They did not attack Syrian positions. But the US decided to hold Syria responsible since the truck-bomb attacks came from territory presumed by the US to be under Syrian control. Syria and Iran deny responsibility for, and knowledge of, the truck-bomb attacks.
The US argument used to justify the scouting over Syrian positions is that the scouting is necessary to protect the marines along the coast from more attacks from Syrian-controlled territory. If the scout planes are attacked, then , it is argued, the US is justified in protecting its scout planes by bombing the attackers.
The further reason cited in government briefings in Washington is that a show of US firmness toward Syria, and in cooperation with Israel, will prod Syria toward being more conciliatory toward the Gemayel government in Lebanon and more inclined to withdraw its own forces from Lebanon.
Whether US bombing of Syrian positions will have such an affect on Syria is in question. It could have a reverse effect. Meanwhile, the bombing has startled and disturbed Washington's three best friends among the Arab countries. Those are Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
It has played into the hands of anti-American political elements in Western Europe by feeding the propaganda theory of President Reagan as a trigger-happy cowboy.
Twelve hours after the US lost two aircraft while ''retaliating'' against the Syrians, artillery fire from Syrian positions ''retaliated'' against the ''retaliation''. That time 8 US marines were killed and two were wounded.