The release of captive American pilot Lt. Robert Goodman by Syria was a no-risk bid to speed the departure of American marines from Lebanon and consolidate Syrian influence there.
Syria's move Tuesday also seems in line with its desire to keep recently escalated tension between American and Syrian forces in Lebanon within manageable limits.
The pilot's release, which came after a bold act of personal diplomacy by presidential candidate Rev. Jesse Jackson, underlined Syrian President Hafez Assad's longtime knack for practical politics - for balancing hard-line rhetoric and close ties with Moscow with a policy of keeping the diplomatic door open to the West.
Earlier, Syria had linked the pilot's release to an end of a state of ''war'' with the United States in Lebanon, and the marines' withdrawal. Yet Mr. Assad's central concern is to counter what he views as an American-Israeli ''conspiracy'' to erase Syria's military presence and political influence in Lebanon.
He has had mixed success on that front. But increasingly, things may be going his way.
Syria's release of Lieutenant Goodman to Jackson, both black, reflects a widely held Arab view that black Americans represent a potential pressure group for a more ''evenhanded'' US approach toward the Arabs and Israel.
But the release seems, more than this, a bid to encourage widening pressure on President Reagan from various US quarters - as well as from Western partners in the Lebanon's peacekeeping force - to reassess a policy that has placed the force in a position of growing confrontation with Syria or Syrian-backed political forces inside Lebanon.
The implicit message from Damascus to the West in Goodman's release is this: Deal with us politely - as did Jesse Jackson - and the risks of confrontation can be removed.
On the minus side for Syria, December saw a friendlier US line toward Israel's role in Lebanon and a more muscular US military approach toward Syrian forces there.
Lieutenant Goodman was shot down Dec. 4 when the US sent carrier-based jets against Syrian antiaircraft positions in Lebanon. This was the first such use of American air power since the US and Western allies dispatched a peacekeeping force to Lebanon after Israel's 1982 invasion.
Also last month, the USS New Jersey used for the first time its 16-inch cannon. The target, again, was Syrian positions in Lebanon. Both strikes were in response to Syrian fire on US reconnaissance jets.
Since then, there have been no further such exchanges - whether because the US is curbing the reconnaissance flights, or because Syria is acting on a publicly stated desire to avoid full-scale confrontation with the US. Still, further Syrian-US clashes remain a possibility.
A Syrian statement on Goodman's release asserted Damascus' determination to ''continue to deal firmly'' with any ''aggression and provocation'' against its some 40,000 troops in Lebanon.
The statement also expressed hope that Goodman's release would help create an ''atmosphere'' conducive to the marines' withdrawal from Lebanon.
It is here recent indications have seemed good news for Assad. The Syrians - and just about everyone in the Mideast - appear increasingly to assume that the US contingent's vulnerability in an American election year will prod Mr. Reagan to redeploy or withdraw his forces.
A Lebanese politician on good terms with Syria summed up the view in recent remarks to the Monitor: ''In spite of all the public assurances from Reagan, the election factor will weigh enormously. There will be a personal disengagement by Reagan from the Lebanon issue . . . and a withdrawal'' by the Marines. He added: ''I think Syria will play for time, and just wait for the Marines to leave.''
The Syrians, in a meeting last month, withheld agreement on a date to reconvene the Lebanon reconciliation conference on the political future of that country. Preparatory talks on the issue resume this month.
The first round of the conference saw the start of a thaw between Syria, which had observer status, and Lebanese President Amin Gemayel. But this cooled amid closer US-Israeli cooperation over Lebanon, and pressure on Mr. Gemayel to go along with this in hopes that, with US help, his government could reassert authority in areas of the country controlled by the Israelis.