ONE can certainly understand why London reacted as strongly as it did against Syria in the aftermath of the court case probing the attempted April 17 bombing of a jumbo El Al jet. It was a Jordanian, Nezar Hindawi, who received a 45-year sentence for planting the plastic bomb in his Irish girlfriend's luggage that was detected before her departure from Heathrow.
But in the Thatcher government's eyes, it was clearly Syria, practicing state terrorism, that deserved much of the blame. Indicators range from Mr. Hindawi's phony Syrian passport and his work for a Syrian intelligence agency to the letter he allegedly smuggled out of jail, asking Syria to take British hostages to gain his release.
Britain has reacted firmly by cutting diplomatic relations and by tightening security measures affecting Syrian airline crews and regular visas. Damascus has likewise cut ties to London and has closed its airports and ports to British traffic.
Early this week Britain took its case to a European Community meeting in Luxembourg, where it was expected to get moral and verbal support but not a great deal more. France, for instance, still hoping to free its hostages in Lebanon, possibly with Syrian help, has reportedly been involved in a major arms sale negotiation with Damascus.
So far Washington has reacted with appropriate caution.
In support of Mrs. Thatcher, who allowed the use of British bases for the US bombing raid against Libya last April, the United States, like Canada, has withdrawn its ambassador to Syria. A good step short of breaking diplomatic relations, the move nonetheless sends a stronger signal than just bringing the ambassador home for consultations. US officials, however, say it is still possible he may return to his post in Damascus.
No one would accuse the Reagan administration of being soft on terrorism. The Libyan bombing, the recent threat of another round, and the President's strong rhetoric make the US position on the subject abundantly clear. Syria since 1979 has been on the short US list of nations repeatedly supporting international terrorism and denied imports that might help their military potential.
The administration's caution in this particular case is significant. Yes, the Soviet Union is a major arms supplier and ally of Syria and would presumbly rush to its defense. But the US also still has hostages in Lebanon; Syria has played a helpful role in gaining the release of others in the past. Also, the US, unlike Britain, has a key peacekeeping role in the Middle East and has helped to keep Syria and Israel separated from each other. Syria is admittedly somewhat isolated among Arab nations -- in supporting Iran in its war with Iraq, in endorsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in rallying only Iran, Algeria, and Libya to its defense in the current situation. But Damascus is clearly an essential party to any working peace agreement in the region.
There are other good reasons for US caution. Though he has five intelligence agencies operating under his direction, Syrian President Hafez Assad is too much the dictator not to know of the El Al plot (Syria strongly denies any role) and is considered by many experts enough of a pragmatist never to risk the retaliation such a plot would invite. Some of the evidence in the British trial relied on Israeli intelligence gathering. It must be remembered that Tel Aviv, while certainly technologically adept in such matters, has been trying to build a case against Syria, molding public opinion in the process, for some time.
Syria, condemning terrorism with the exception of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation, has played an active role in Middle East terrorist incidents for some years. Its actions have usually been specific, targeted, and well disguised. Certainly there have been suspicions about Syria's involvement in recent French bombings and the Rome airport massacre.
If Syria has indeed extended the reach of its hand in terrorist activities into Western Europe, the strong action of London, coupled with Europe's verbal condemnation and the action taken by Washington and Ottawa, should send a clear joint warning to Damascus that covering its tracks in the future may be harder to do. Syria is also thus warned that any further evidence of terrorist action is not to be tolerated -- and could, in fact, justify a tough Western response.