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Syria and Mr. Reagan

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As the American death toll in Lebanon continues to grow and the success of the Marines' mission - whether military or political - is nowhere in sight, disturbing questions are increasingly raised about Ronald Reagan's policy in the Middle East. Some criticize the President for being ''trigger happy'' and relying too heavily on military power.

But the Syrians are not the Americans. Those who rule in Damascus do not share the US liberal dogma that when guns are used it means diplomacy has failed. Military force is a traditional and much respected tool for settling disputes in the region. Those reluctant to employ power should stay away from the Middle East.

Nor can the President be fairly charged of recklessness in handling the Syrians. Once the Marines arrived in Lebanon they had to be protected against hostile attacks. There is little doubt that most of these attacks are, if not directly orchestrated by Damascus, at least organized with its knowledge, approval, and support. A great power like the United States cannot afford to give the impression that a small but assertive Soviet ally can push it around with impunity.

Similarly, I would not blame Mr. Reagan for putting too much emphasis on the East-West dimension of the Lebanese situation. The administration, on the whole, recognizes that deep divisions between Lebanese factions are not Moscow's invention. And officials in both the White House and the State Department realize that Syria has its own agenda and is not a Soviet puppet.

Syrian leadership in Damascus consists of tough and pragmatic men. They would probably never dare to challenge the US and Israel if they did not feel that the Soviet superpower was behind them. At this point - regardless of historical rights and wrongs - success for Damascus means a gain for the Kremlin and a loss for the US.

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