SYRIA is at the geographic crossroads of the Arab world. It would be difficult for any Palestinian guerrilla or ``terrorist'' or any type of Muslim fanaticist or zealot to mount any operation against any Israeli or other target in the outside world without traveling through either Syria itself or that part of Lebanon which is under Syrian military control.
There are many organizations or groups of people in the Arab world eager to strike out against Israel or any of Israel's friends and benefactors. There are many who are anti-Western for other reasons arising out of religious or cultural fanaticism.
Most of these organizations have a base of some kind in Lebanon or Syria. Many of their people take side trips in the course of preparing for operations. They often go to Iran for emotional refreshment at the center of Arab fundamentalism. Some have gone to Libya for a course in one of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's terrorist training schools (set up originally by a pair of renegade American Central Intelligence agents).
But when it comes to a trip to hijack an airliner or a cruise ship or take hostages or shoot up an airport, they more or less have to go through the airport at Damascus or Beirut. Most such journeys have been through the Damascus airport. Frequently the people involved have real or forged Syrian documents. Most of these operations would be impossible without Syrian consent, connivance, and support.
This has been true from the beginning of the current wave of acts of political violence in the Mediterranean area. It was true when President Reagan bombed Libya. It continues to be true today.
Until this month, when the British broke diplomatic relations with Syria for a peculiarly outrageous act of attempted violence at London's Heathrow Airport, the Syrian government has escaped responsibility or reprisal.
Several reasons account for Syria's relative immunity to reprisals, past, present, and probably future.
Unlike Colonel Qaddafi of Libya, President Assad of Syria denies government connection and publicly condemns acts of political violence. Colonel Qaddafi in the past applauded violence, gave hospitality to perpetrators, and allowed the flagrant use of his diplomatic missions for terrorist operations.
Unlike Libya, Syria is a prot'eg'e and client of the Soviet Union. Some 2,500 Soviet military personnel are in Syria, in uniform. Moscow publicly dissociated itself from Libya before President Reagan bombed Libya. Moscow has not, however, dissociated itself from Syria.
Also, the Syrian government has been helpful in obtaining the release of a number of Westerners who have been kidnapped by various fanatical Muslim groups. Negotiations are going on through Syria for release of others still held in captivity.
The case of Nezar Hindawi, a Jordanian convicted on Oct. 24 in London of trying to plant a bomb aboard an Israeli airliner, is unique in two respects. It involved deliberately using an innocent and pregnant Irish girl as the carrier of the bomb. It is the first time an act of this kind has been traceable directly to Syrian government officials. There was an established connection between the convicted terrorist and the Syrian Embassy in London, and from the Syrian Embassy in London to the Syrian foreign office in Damascus.
Until now the Syrian government's only provable connection with acts of violence was its failure to prevent the use of its air and seaports by perpetrators of violence. Denials of association with the acts were plausible. Denial in the Hindawi case is not plausible.
But what does the United States government do now? It wishes to negotiate with the Syrian government over missing persons. Syria is the key Arab country in any future effort to seek peace in the Middle East. Syria is under Soviet protection. So Washington recalls its ambassador, but it does not break relations.
That's the way things are in the power world.