THE NINE previous peace plans in Lebanon's civil war have failed. So when Syria set out last year to prepare another, it figured to remedy a central defect of the old plans by dealing with the militia leaders who could make the new plan stick. To bring the Moslem and Druze communities aboard was easy enough: the political leaders and militia leaders are the same people. For the Christians, however, it's different. The Christian militia leader Syria tapped, Elie Hobeika of the so-called Lebanese Forces, does not speak for the established Maronite leadership, including President Amin Gemayel and such traditional politicians as Camille Chamoun. No sooner was the latest Syrian plan presented, late in December, than the Maronite establishment launched the protest that shoved Mr. Hobeika into exile last week.

That brings us to the current danger: will Syria, to bring the recalcitrant Christian establishment to heel, condone a resumption of Lebanon's pitiless 11-year war?

So chaotic is Lebanon's passage that the underlying issue is easily lost sight of. The French endowed their Lebanese favorites, the Maronites, with a share of political and economic power considerably larger than their numbers alone would have brought them. The out groups, including Moslems and Druze, have never stopped trying to adjust the balance. To shore up their position the Maronites have often looked beyond Lebanon: to the French, the Americans and the Israelis, among others. It is not simply that they savor privilege, although many surely do. They also see themselves facing a loss of their cultural identity, the threat of being swamped in an Islamic sea. This accounts for what many see as their chronic unreasonableness in coming to new power-sharing terms.

The Syrian plan had, and still has, merit. It cuts up the political pie to give a bigger piece to the Moslem majority. To protect the Christians, however, the plan provides for continuing Syrian patronage in Lebanon. A smaller piece of the pie but an ensured and protected piece: that is what Syria offers the Christians. They cannot afford to dismiss it lightly. Syria, by proximity and ambition, remains the only foreign power in a position to play this necessary patron's role. As desperate as some Christians are, they cannot seriously imagine that the Israelis or the Americans will bail them out.

Those in Lebanon and the United States who believe the Christian minority deserves a secure place in Lebanon must hope that Damascus does not prematurely abandon its latest plan. The alternative for Lebanon is too awful to contemplate.