Syria, once one of the most insular of Middle East states, is making a concerted effort to open itself to the West.

Diplomats, journalists and other visitors are among the chief beneficiaries of the policy, which began slowly about three years ago and suddenly accelerated last September.

Finance Minister Mohammed Imadi said last week that Syria, for many years politically and economically dependent on Eastern Europe, is now eager to develop closer relations with the West.

"It is part of our policy," he said. "We are opening up to the whole world. To close our doors will not make friends and we gain from other cultures and societies."

Western diplomats now can make appointments directly with Syrian officials; until recently they had to go through the Foreign Ministry.

The government went out of its way to welcome a combined delegation from the American Jewish Committee and the National Council of Churches of Christ that visited here this month, and some Syrian officials even attended the group's reception.

Western journalists are now welcome here. Until recently all cables had to pass through one Syrian correspondent but now each news agency has its own Telex machine. Syrian press cards, once a rarity among American correspondents, are now handed out freely.

"They used to say it was easier to get a man to the moon than for an American journalist to get to Demascus," joked Syrian Information Minister Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed in an interview last week.

On a political level, Iskandar said, Syria wants to develop closer ties with the United States, whose citizens were rarely allowed in the country as recently as five year ago.

Once a hardliner on Arab-Israeli relations, Syria has joined in the Arab peace offensive, althout it appears not to be in as great a hurry as Egypt to get peace talks started.

This policy of openness is a reflection of a new confidence Syria has in itself, the stability of its government, and its position as a leader of the Arab world.

"Nobody can ignore Syria and nobody can ignore its role in the area," said Iskandar.

President Hafez Assad, whose six-year reign has set a longevity record in this notoriously unstable nation, has become a key figure in Arab politics even though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is more vocal.

Assad's move into Lebanon against the Palestinians last June turned into a success that in October was given legitimacy by most of the Arab world. Now Syrian forces are in the forefront of Arab moves to curb the Palestinians. While Syria has grave economic problems, including a rampaging inflation, most Western analysists believe these problems - unlike Egypt's - are manageable in time.

With this new national confidence, Assad is beginning to step into the limelight. He held an unusual number of press conferences during the past two weeks - one each for reporters covering the visits of the West German, French and American foreign ministers.

Publications such as Time, Newsweek and the International Herald Tribune now are available throughout Damascus instead of only in shops in the area where foreigners live. Government officials, who control their importation, said more foreign publications soon will be available in the city.

This does not mean that the open door policy cannot be turned off overnight. Copies of the International Herald Tribune carrying front page stories of Jordanian King Hussein's reported connections with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, for example, never appeared on newsstands even though they were seen in government offices.

While Syrians are willing to see Western diplomats more freely, they sometimes are reluctant to have social contacts with them on a private level.

One diplomat, for example, invited 14 Syrian officials, including two cabinet ministers, to lunch at his home. No one showed up until it became clear that at least one of the ministers would arrive. Then everyone trooped in at once.

Western diplomats are still not sure whether Syrian officials harbor private ideas that differ from the government's public expressions of policy. "They do keep their counsel very closely," said one diplomat.

Little of this new openness has percolated from the official level to the Syrian man in the street. With few exceptions the only Arab language newspapers available here are the tightly controlled ones published in Syria.

But state television is full of U.S. programs, such as Kojak and The Virginians, and the Syrians want more. They are also negotiating to bring American movies here.

Syria's communications with the rest of the world are expected to improve tremendously when a new satellite station opens later this year.

But, said one government official, this new policy of openness is being pursued very gradually and carefully. So far, he said, "we have found fruitful results."

Government officials are looking carefully at Egypt, which had food price riots last month, and are determined not to allow the new freedoms here to give Syrians any similiar ideas.

"Egypt moved too quickly," said a Syrian not connected with government, "and it got out of hand."