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MIDEAST: Preparing for War, Talking Peace

Analysis by Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM, Aug 22 2007 (IPS) - Israeli officials have used almost every public platform over the last week to declare that Israel has no war-like intentions toward Syria. Officials in Damascus have made similar soothing proclamations, insisting they have no belligerent intentions toward Jerusalem. And, recently, senior officials from two Arab states passed on messages to Israel that Syria is not planning an attack in the coming months.

So why is there growing tension between Jerusalem and Damascus, and why are Israeli leaders so concerned about the possibility of war with their northern neighbour? What&#39s got them worried is an extensive Syrian rearmament programme, Syrian military preparations on the border with Israel, and the concern that even if both sides don&#39t have an appetite for war, a miscalculation could lead to one.

"Israel is not interested in war with Syria, but we are preparing for any eventuality," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared during a recent visit to the army&#39s Northern Command headquarters.

Syrian Vice-President Faroukh a-Shara said Damascus would "not initiate war…people on Syria&#39s streets do not want war, although they will not accept anything less than Israeli withdrawal from the whole of the occupied Golan Heights."

Tensions have been stoked, in part, by the training exercises the Israeli army is carrying out on the Golan Heights as part of its efforts to rehabilitate the military in the wake of the war in Lebanon a year ago. Israel is worried by Syria&#39s rearming, particularly with sophisticated Russian-made weapons like anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Some of these have reportedly been bought with Iranian funds, although many of the shipments haven&#39t arrived yet.

The Russian media reported recently that the anti-aircraft missiles are part of a 900 million dollar arms deal. The missile system is known as Pantsyr S1 and is made up of short-range anti-aircraft weapons that can be mounted on the back of vehicles. The concern in Israeli defence circles is that these missiles might find their way to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

The Syrians have also been putting in place extensive defence fortifications along the southern and northern part of the Golan Heights. According to reports in the Israeli press, Syria has deployed 200 of its most sophisticated surface-to-air missiles close to its border with Israel.

Israeli defence officials have also been trying to read what they see as conflicting signals being issued by Syrian President Bashar Assad. In recent months, Assad has made peace overtures to Israel, indicating he is ready to return to the negotiating table. But these statements have been mixed with warnings of "resistance", in tandem with Hezbollah, the Shia group that enjoys both Syrian and Iranian backing in south Lebanon and which battled Israel during the month-long hostilities in Lebanon last year.

One Israeli concern is that if hostilities with Hezbollah erupt again, Syria might carry out a limited military action in an attempt to snatch a piece of the Golan Heights and force Israel to the negotiating table.

Israel captured the strategic mountain range from Syria during the 1967 war, and ever since Damascus has demanded the return of the Golan as the price of peace with Israel. The last time the two sides met around the negotiating table was back in 2000 when then Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak met Farouk a-Shara in the U.S. But the talks broke down and the two sides have not met since.

While Syria has demanded the return of the Heights in exchange for peace, Israel has said that stringent security arrangements would have to be put in place if it is to relinquish the strategic range, including a deep demilitarised zone on the Syrian side of the border. Israel has a highly sophisticated lookout centre on Mount Hermon, the highest point on the Golan Heights, and which is referred to in Israel as "the eyes of the country". From Mt. Hermon, Israel can see deep into Syrian territory.

Israeli leaders and top military officials have been meeting on a weekly basis to assess Syrian intentions. Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, the head of Military Intelligence, does not believe Damascus is planning an attack on Israel, but fears the "miscalculation" scenario, where tensions between the two sides spiral out of control. "Syria is not planning to initiate a war, but the scenario of a possible miscalculation is still relevant," he was recently reported as saying.

Ehud Barak, who is now the defence minister, has also tried to calm Syrian concerns over extensive Israeli military training on the Golan Heights, saying that the manoeuvres are part of an effort to ensure Israeli readiness in the wake of the war in Lebanon. "Israel is not interested in war with Syria, and we believe that Syria does not want war either," Barak said recently in a bid to douse the rising tensions.

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