First Published: 2007-02-22

Israel gripped by Syria war fears

Source in UN force in Golan denies Syrian troop build-up, says claim repeated by Israeli media before.


Middle East Online

By Jacques Pinto - JERUSALEM

Anticipating war or preparing for one?

A reported Syrian troop build-up near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has fueled speculation in Israel about a future conflict, more than three decades after the two enemies last went to war.

Syrian armed forces appear to be moving closer to the armistice line as Damascus spearheads an unprecendented armaments drive, shrieked Israel's Haaretz newspaper from its front page Thursday.

"The Syrian armed forces are being strengthened in a way unprecedented in recent memory with the help of generous funding from Iran," wrote military affairs correspondent Zeev Schiff.

Brigadier General Yossi Beidatz, the head of military intelligence research, has also warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing for conflict with Israel, possibly through Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel last year.

Haaretz said the main thrust of Syria's armaments drive was missiles and long-range rockets intended to compensate for its weak airforce.

Its navy is being bolstered by an Iranian missile similar to one fired by Hezbollah fighters into an Israeli destroyer during last summer's war, killing four crew members.

Syria is also close to concluding a deal with Russia to procure thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles, of the sort Hezbollah used to such lethal effect against Israeli armour last year, Haaretz reported.

"It appears that the Syrians have moved forces closer to the border (armistice line) with Israel on the Golan Heights," wrote Schiff, noting similar movements prior to Syria's offensive during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Three decades ago, a coordinated Egyptian and Syrian assault caught Israel totally off guard on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, triggering its deadliest conflict since independence in 1948.

Syria has test-fired ballistic missiles, such as a Scud-D surface-to-surface missile, which would put most of Israel within range, Haaretz reported.

Israel is still smarting from its deadly pounding by more than 4,000 Hezbollah rockets last summer, that killed some 40 civilians.

Senior defence ministry official Amos Gilad said he saw no immediate danger of war but added that Syrian weapons purchases highlighted the need for Israel to maintain its combat-readiness.

"The fact that Syria is strengthening its military capabilities does not mean we're going to be attacked tomorrow but certainly we need to be prepared," Gilad told public radio.

"There is no danger of war. There is no deployment of forces indicating that Israel would be threatened by an offensive tomorrow."

A source in the northern command agreed that Syria had beefed up its troops along the armistice line as Israel did following the outbreak of war in Lebanon.

"There was a clear rise in tension... with Syria, which bolstered its forces along the border. We then also heightened our alert level and beefed up our military presence in the Golan Heights and on Mount Hermon," the source said.

"Since the end of the war, tension has remained high on both sides and at a much higher level than it was before the war. There is much more Israeli and Syrian daily military presence along the border today."

But a source in the UN force in the Golan Heights charged with monitoring the armistice denied any Syrian troop build-up and lashed out an "alarmist Israeli media that repeatedly brings up the topic".

"We haven't noticed any change in the deployment of the Syrian forces along the armistice line," the official said.

On Wednesday, Israel launched war games on the Golan Heights that Defence Minister Amir Peretz flatly denied were connected to fears of a new conflict with Syria.

Damascus has repeatedly demanded the return of the Golan, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and unilaterally annexed in 1981. It is now home to more than 15,000 settlers.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000, in part because of disputes over the return of the territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has repeatedly rejected peace overtures made by the Syrian president in recent months, saying Damascus must first stop supporting militant groups in Lebanon and Gaza.


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