No country in the Middle East is more misunderstood than Syria. The conventional image of Syria, created by a combination of Syrian declaratory extremism and anti-Syrian propaganda, portrays it as violently anti-American, a Soviet satellite, Qaddafi-like in its rejection of Middle East peace, near Marxist in its political ideology, and eager to go to war with Israel.

None of this is true.

The vast majority of Syrians are well disposed toward Americans, and a great number have relatives living as citizens in the United States. Despite a recent increase in Soviet protective support, Syrian President Hafez Assad remains in control of Syrian foreign policy and keeps the door open to the United States. Assad is fundamentally a political moderate posing as a radical. He's on record as supporting U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 calling for an Arab commitment to make peace with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories.

The regime is essentially nonideological in character and keeps the local Communist Party under tight rein. A cardinal tenet of Assad's policy is to avoid a full-scale war with Israel, since he knows Syria would be beaten badly and his minority Alawi regime thereby placed in jeopardy.

Why then is the Syrian government so obstinate and antagonistic? Now that Israel and Lebanon have signed a withdrawal agreement, why doesn't Syria also agree to withdraw its troops from Lebanon?

A primary reason is that Assad is upset that Israel is being rewarded for its invasion of Lebanon, and he refuses to equate Syria's "legitimate" presence in Lebanon, with Israel's "illegitimate" presence. The Syrians therefore insist on unconditional Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Should the Syrians ever back down from this position, they would seek to dissociate any eventual Syrian withdrawal from the Israeli-Lebanese agreement.

Second, Assad believes that only by acting in concert from a position of strength can the Arabs ever prevail upon Israel to make the necessary concessions for a peace satisfactory to the Arabs. He sees the normalization of Israeli-Lebanese relations flowing from the withdrawal agreement as one more Arab defection weakening the negotiating weight of the Arab whole.

Third, Assad harbors a lingering resentment toward the United States, which mediated the Israeli-Lebanese agreement. He felt let down by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was unable to parlay the first Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement in 1974 into a comprehensive settlement. He thought President Carter backed out of a personal commitment made in 1977 to solve the Palestine problem, and he reasoned that Carter reduced pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights by taking Egypt out of the Arab power equation through the Camp David agreement. He sees the shipment of the most sophisticated U.S. military equipment to Israel as building up an Israeli military machine that threatens his existence. He feels that, in general, the United States has ignored both Syria's concerns and its pivotal position in the area.

Fourth, Assad is now determined to pursue no Lebanese arrangement in isolation from wider regional considerations.

So where does this leave us? It is unfortunate that the nature of Secretary of State George Shultz's recent visit to Damascus was misunderstood by the media and interpreted as a major U.S. policy failure. The visit should have been viewed as a step in the direction of expanding the U.S.-Syrian dialogue, so long neglected. Certainly no knowledgeable U.ial was naive enough to believe that Assad was about to agree to withdraw his troops from Lebanon.

This evolving high-level dialogue, whiesulted in the formation of a U.S.-Syrian working commission to consult on Lebanon, is in itself important. It improves the general atmosphethe existence of the joint commission suggests that Assad may be keeping his options open.

If the United States can address Assad's major concerns, even partially, we might make some headway.

First, whould emphasize to Assad that we do recognize the differences in the respective Syrian and Israeli military presences and agree that a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon could be dissociated from the Israeli-Lebanese agreement. At the same time, we must take appropriate account of Syria's security concerns.

Second, Syribjections to the terms of the agreement might be alleviated, were the Israelis to undertake a unilateral withdrawal. Such a withdrawal, even though it is in consonance with the provisions of the agreement to which Syria objects, would demonstrate to Assad the sincerity of the Israeli undering to withdraw and to minimize its future presence in Lebanon. This could be a critical factor in triggering a followup Syrian withdrawal. raelis, the Syrians would insist upon retaining a residual presence--in the Bekaa Valley.

Third, the United States must demonstr to Assad's satisfaction that our word is credible and that we are not being led around by the Israelis. In this connection, Assad definitely wants the Golan Heights back--he would not give it up in exchange for a Bekaa pnce--since he feels some personal responsibility for loss of the Golan in 1967. Since Syria's claim to this territory is irrefutable from thet of international law, Israel's annexation of it must be reversed. Unless the United States deals with this issue more effectively, it can expect little responsiveness fad on withdrawal.

A continuing, strong, public U.S. commitment to Lebanon's sovereignty is also a necessityl to Syria and as reassurance to the Lebanese government. Such a commitment helps the Lebanese regime to live with a reality: that, whatevera for historical and political reasons can be expected to retain important influence in Lebanon. This reality is a reason why Syria eventualnd it possible to pull out at least most of its troops if the Israelis do the same.