Israel Threatens
Syrians With
Air Bombardment
By Phil Reeves in Jerusalem
Israel is threatening Syria with air strikes against its military bases in south Lebanon if there are further border attacks on Israeli soldiers or civilians by Hizbollah guerrillas.
Such warnings were common during Israel's occupation of south Lebanon but they have resumed following fresh Hizbollah assaults. They raise anew the alarming spectre of a wider Middle East conflict.
The threat against Syria's 20,000 troops in Lebanon was outlined yesterday by a senior Israeli security source. He said Syria possessed the power to rein in Hizbollah, but instead Bashar al-Assad, its president, encouraged it. The Syrians did not understand the consequences of their "dangerous policies", said the source.
Iranian-sponsored Hizbollah recently renewed attacks on Israel, capturing four soldiers in the last two months and killing one with a roadside bomb. It is acting on the pretext that Israel is still occupying the Shebaa Farms, a small pocket of what it claims was originally Lebanese land that was seized by Syria in the 1940s and in 1967 occupied by Israel as part of the Golan Heights. The United Nations has ruled it to be on the Israeli side of the "blue line" that marks out the Israeli-occupied Golan from Lebanon.
Israel's annoyance with Syria's new young president has been heightened by disappointment that he has not proved any more likely to succumb to Israeli demands than his father, Hafez al-Assad, who died in June. The bizarre, but widely circulated notion that "Dr Bashar's" British training as an ophthalmologist and his interest in computers would soften his stance on Syrian interests making him, in western eyes, a relative "moderate" has predictably proved to be no more than diplomatic guff.
The Israeli military is alarmed by Bashar al-Assad's eagerness to forge closer relations with Iraq in contrast to his father, whose hostility towards Saddam Hussein reached a peak in 1991 when he supported Operation Desert Storm. Last month Izzat Ibrahim, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council, was the most senior Iraqi official for two decades to visit Damascus. Reports abound that Iraq is piping oil to Syria in defiance of sanctions.
Bashar al-Assad "was expected to be more moderate due to his western education," said the Israeli security source, who requested anonymity. "But he is behaving just the opposite way. He is very extreme. He has turned very hard in the direction of the Iraqis." If Israel gets embroiled in a conflict with Damascus, the source warned, then Iraq would be "delighted" to join in.
This week, Israel bombarded a Lebanese town after a Hizbollah bomb killed one of its soldiers. But Ehud Barak, the Israeli prime minister, has held back from retaliation over the captured men three soldiers and a reserve colonel because he did not want to open another front while battling the Palestinian intifada.
Israeli troops shot dead two more Palestinians yesterday one, a 12-year-old boy after unrest erupted following the first Friday prayers of Ramadan.
Although the Israel Defense Forces principally blame the Syrian president for their embarrassing setbacks at the hands of Hizbollah, it is also pointing a finger at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. It claims that the guerrillas who seized the three soldiers were disguised as UN peacekeepers, using equipment acquired from an Indian battalion. A UN spokesman has called the report incorrect. The story does, however, smack of a larger Israeli publicity campaign an effort to undermine Palestinian efforts to persuade the United Nations to send an observer force to the occupied territories.
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