Fri, 04 May 2001

Israel awaits Syrian move in Lebanon

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters): Locked in battle with the Palestinians, Israel appears to have bought itself a measure of quiet on the northern front with last month's air strike against a Syrian radar base in Lebanon.

The question no one in Israel can answer is how long will the Lebanon lull last?

In words that came as no surprise to Israeli strategists, Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview published in Spain's El Pais newspaper on Wednesday that a retaliatory Syrian strike, at least for now, would be counter productive.

"It doesn't look at the moment that the Syrians are going to react vehemently in a military way," a senior Foreign Ministry official said after the April 15 Israeli air raid, which killed three Syrian soldiers.

But he said Syria would eventually have to act.

"Syria's position in the Arab world necessitates an ongoing military struggle against Israel. They cannot be in a position in which the only ones fighting Israel are the Palestinians," the official told foreign correspondents.

"They are going to react and the probable reaction ... will be another terrorist attack, maybe a larger one in an area that has legitimacy -- namely, the Shebaa Farms," he said.

Israeli warplanes attacked the radar station after Lebanese Hizbollah guerrillas fired an anti-tank missile that killed an Israeli soldier at Shebaa Farms on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Hizbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, contends that Israel's troop withdrawal from south Lebanon almost a year ago was incomplete because Shebaa Farms remained under Israeli occupation.

The United Nations, which certified the Israeli pullout as complete, says Shebaa Farms is not Lebanese territory but a part of Syria that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

"The question that we will face in the next stage is what happens if (the Syrians) succeed in creating an event that has political meaning in Israel -- namely, a large number of casualties," the official said.

Asked by El Pais about his declaration that Syria reserved its right to respond to the Israeli air strike, Assad said: "Definitely the way of retaliation won't be announced. There are various military, political and other options for a retaliation.

"The military retaliation at present means a response for (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon who wants to push the region to a war at the time he wants," Assad said in the interview, also carried by the official Syrian news agency.

"The important thing is that our response, whose nature would be decided at the appropriate time, should be carried out in accordance with our own way and the type which achieves our objective," said Assad, who succeeded his late father Hafez Assad last July.

For Assad-watchers in Israel, that means avoiding serious confrontation that could wreck bridge-building with the West, draw strong Israeli action against Lebanese infrastructure targets or even lead to all-out war.

"They have not really modernized at all," the Israeli official said about the Syrian military. "Israeli technology is far superior. So they find themselves with no ability to run a conventional war against Israel."

Deterrence, he said, was now the key element in the two countries' war of nerves over the Lebanon issue and Israel's 34- year-old occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights.

"Since the (1991) Gulf War, Syria built a huge arsenal of ground-to-ground missiles, seeing this as the weapon of choice against Israel," the official said.

"At the moment, there is no defense against Katyusha rockets or short-range missiles, and the Syrians know this very well ... So for the foreseeable future, in the next five years, the Syrians feel they have a very capable deterrent against Israel."

For Israel, the official said, the air raid last month was a signal that Sharon's government would not tolerate Hizbollah attacks on Israeli troops.

On another level, he acknowledged, the government had to act to counterbalance an impression that Israel ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon with its tail between its legs, driven off by Hizbollah's daily attacks against its soldiers.

That image emboldened Palestinians to launch their uprising against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the official said.

"Not sending a deterrence message is like the withdrawal from Lebanon; it will be interpreted as weakness. It will further erode and contribute to this image of Israel's eroding deterrence capability because we are too fat and flabby and can't do anything.

"This is not a lovey-dovey relationship," he said of the Israeli-Syrian conflict. "This is a relationship of fear."