Murky Raid Heats Up Syria-Israel Tension
By SAM F. GHATTAS, AP, Sept. 13, 2007
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) - Syria and Israel last turned their guns on each other in all-out war a quarter century ago, but tensions are sky high after a mysterious Israeli airstrike deep into Syrian territory last week.
America says the target was Iranian missiles, while others have raised questions of possible North Korean links. Israel, however, hasn't even acknowledged anything happened, and Syria has said very little beyond announcing the incursion and complaining to the United Nations.
Still, neither side appears eager for an escalation. Israel put its troops on high alert along the Golan Heights frontier and Syria discreetly called up some air defense reservists, but the crisis has seemed more a war of nerves than preparation for hostilities.
``The picture is still foggy,'' said Christopher Pang, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Most information has come from outside: A U.S. official confirmed this week that Israeli warplanes had staged a strike. The official, who would not speak publicly, said the target was Iranian-made weapons stored in northeastern Syria and destined for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
The Washington Post reported Thursday, however, that Israel had gathered satellite imagery showing possible North Korean cooperation with Syria on a nuclear facility. It cited an unidentified former Israeli official as saying the airstrike was aimed at a site capable of making unconventional weapons.
Syrian's U.N. envoy denied the country had weapons for Hezbollah. And its information minister, Mohsen Bilal, told the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday that the accusations of North Korean nuclear help were a ``new American spin to cover up'' for Israel.
Other theories abound.
One possibility is the Israeli planes simply made an intelligence-gathering reconnaissance flight, said David Hartwell, Middle East and North Africa editor for Jane's Country Risk.
Others speculate Israel's military was testing Syrian air defenses or perhaps scouting an air corridor for a possible strike against Iran.
Either way, the incursion probably served at least one main purpose - as a warning, experts said.
``In terms of deterrence, the effect was clear, by invading Syrian airspace, by showing that Israel is not only able, but willing, to still launch strikes against Syrian targets,'' Pang said.
North Korea piqued interest when it condemned the Israeli air incursion.
The communist state has a long alliance with Syria, and Israeli experts say North Korea and Iran both have been major suppliers of missiles to Syria. But many experts, including Hartwell, said they found the idea of North Korean nuclear help to Syria unlikely, in part because Syria's weak economy leaves it hard-pressed to afford nuclear technology.
Israel's silence has been among the most curious things about the incident.
In the past, Israel often was swift to announce such operations, while Syria was slow to comment. This time, Israel has said nothing and Syria was the one to announce that its air space had been entered and that Israeli aircraft had ``dropped munitions.''
Despite that, Syria didn't ask the U.N. Security Council to meet over the incident or to condemn the act. It merely asked for its complaint to be circulated.
The location and timing of the strike also are puzzling.
Some experts think it unlikely that Syria would put sensitive projects in its northeast near the border with Turkey, which is friendly with Israel as well as with Syria. Syria's main strategic military installations are believed to be in its central desert.
Others note Syria has long been thought to be a transit point for moving weapons to Hezbollah, with which Israel fought an inclusive war last year, and question why Israel would strike now.
``My assessment is that there is a very complex security picture that I think is potentially driving these events,'' said Pang, but he added: ``If I had to pin down to the most likely ... to me the Hezbollah-Iranian connection seems the most plausible.''
Syria and Israel fought each other during both the 1967 and 1973 Mideast wars. Their last military confrontation was in neighboring Lebanon in 1982, when Israel's air force shot down dozens of Syrian warplanes and Israeli forces destroyed Syrian tanks.
That history of conflict keeps the region jittery about the possibility of a new war, and Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, made clear Thursday that the latest faceoff has the potential for a new blowup.
``Syria will respond to any Israeli acts, now and in the future,'' he said.