US and Syria

Sometimes after a crescendo of violence and reaction - like the US air strikes on Syrian positions in Lebanon and the artillery assault on the Marine base in Beirut, which left nine American servicemen dead and a US pilot captured - talks resume again.

We prefer to think that the United States and Syria have now tested one another's wills and the Middle East focus can return again to forging a reconciliation pact among Lebanon's factions.

But the weekend's violence points up weaknesses in the current White House approach in Lebanon that will have to be addressed:

The United States has become a contestant in Lebanon rather than a mediator. . . . US marines there have become helpless pawns in the test of wills, but to pull them out without coordinating policy with the three other peacekeeper nations would be a mistake. . . . Last week's drawing closer of US and Israeli ties has underscored the lack of American neutrality in Lebanon in moderate Arab eyes. . . . America's partners in Lebanon, the three other peacekeepers - France , Britain, and Italy - and Israel, do not share the Reagan administration's strategic rationale in Lebanon, that is, curbing Soviet adventurism via Syria. . . . US public support for US military presence and action in Lebanon will likely continue to weaken as American lives are lost.

US air strikes the past few days do not necessarily flow out of last week's compact with Israel. The US had earlier decided to show a tough posture toward the Syrians, to make them more amenable to a Lebanon settlement. The Syrians had said they would shoot at any reconnaisance aircraft over Syrian positions in Lebanon. The US maintains it has a right to take whatever steps are necessary, including such overflights, to protect its troops. Clearly something has to give. To continue the flights with such a line drawn in the sand becomes a provocative act, with Soviet missiles apparently able to bring down at least some of the aircraft.

The official US position on Lebanon now is to insist on the May 18 agreement, to time Israeli withdrawal to Syrian withdrawal, and strengthen the Gemayel government. To hold to so specific an outcome, and enforce it with US military power, is not truly a mediator's position.

The administration argues that until it can show the Syrians the US-Israeli common front has enough strength and is prepared to use it, the Syrians won't negotiate. The weekend's events suggest that further escalation of force may be needed to find Syria's vulnerability threshold. That would mean more tragedy, inviting further Soviet backup of Syria and bringing the two superpowers closer to confrontation.

Although it is hardly mentioned lately, the US shares a peacekeeping role in Lebanon with others. The Italians, particularly, have been among the Reagan administration's staunchest supporters in Europe. A start toward a solution would be to turn over the peacekeeper role to others who are regarded as more neutral. The US cannot leave its European partners high and dry in Lebanon. But neither do they want the US to draw the Middle East into another war.

The impression abroad and at home is that the administration hopes to prevail through a show of force, exploiting a possible window of weakness in Syria caused by President Assad's apparent illness. The US also hoped Israel would cooperate by asking congressional opponents of ties between the US and the moderate Arab states to back off. It seems both hopes were misplaced.

Even some high in the administration acknowledge the White House lacks an overriding conceptual framework for its foreign policy. It is operating with some fairly able tacticians and the President's intuitions, insiders say. Nowhere is this clearer than in Lebanon now.

The US wants peace in the Middle East. But does it need to get between Israel and Syria in their struggle between ''greater Syria'' and ''greater Israel'' for regional supremacy? Does it have to preserve Christian leadership in Lebanon? Does it have to enhance Soviet influence by raising tensions that invite superpower backup?

The answer to some of these questions could arguably be yes. But before the run of events gains momentum, they should be better addressed.

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