Syria poised to strike back


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

Syria poised to strike back
Air force on high alert; government issues warning

Condemned by U.S. and Israel as Hezbollah's patron
Jul. 17, 2006. 01:00 AM

DAMASCUS‹The Syrian government has vowed to strike back if Israel expands the 
war with Hezbollah by hitting targets in Syria.

Syria's information minister, Mohsen Bilal, issued the warning yesterday, as 
U.S. and Israeli officials stepped up condemnations of Syria as Hezbollah's 

"Any aggression against Syria will be met with a firm and direct response whose 
timing and methods are unlimited," Bilal was quoted as saying by Syria's 
official news agency, SANA.

The risk of the conflict expanding to Syria was highlighted yesterday, when 
former Israeli defence minister Shaul Mofaz claimed the Hezbollah rockets that 
killed at least eight people in Haifa were Syrian-made.

Israeli officials later described the shells as Iranian rockets that transited 
Syria to end up in Hezbollah's arsenal in Lebanon.

Bilal's tough talk is more than bravado, say analysts here. With its limited and
outdated military equipment, Syria is likely to come out the loser in a conflict
with Israel. But massive public support for Hezbollah would leave it with no 
option but to hit back, analysts say.

"There's already huge public pressure to join the fight," said Marwan Kabalan, a
political scientist at Damascus University. "If Syria is attacked and it doesn't
defend itself, the regime will be very shaky inside the country. It will look 
weak in the eyes of the people."

Earlier this year, after a Hamas attack against Israel, Israeli jets flew above 
the summer residence of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who allows some Hamas 
leaders to have refuge in Damascus. In the conflict with Hezbollah, Israel has 
so far refrained from provoking Syria militarily. Most analysts believe the 
U.S., Israel's most powerful ally, has made clear to Israel it draws the line at
actions that could set the whole Middle East on fire.

But the conflict has escalated so fast that many fear it's already spiralling 
out of control.

"Everybody's nervous, not just the Syrian government," Kabalan said in an 

Says a well-informed diplomat in Damascus: "The Syrians have been playing it 
very low key. There's the usual rhetoric from the usual people, but all the 
serious signals the regime is sending out say, `Don't hit us.'"

"We have no interest in escalation," said George Jabbour, a member of parliament
and one-time adviser to the late president, Hafez Assad. "We are trying to calm 
things down."

The Syrian air force has been on high alert since Wednesday but soldiers have 
not moved from their regular positions, said magazine owner, Waddah Abed Rabbo, 
who has links with Bashar's entourage.

Syria is suspected by most analysts of "facilitating" the passage of Iranian 
weapons to Hezbollah. From the G-8 conference in Russia yesterday, Bush accused 
Syria, Iran and Hezbollah of being "the root cause of the problem."

But the communiqué of the G-8 leaders, setting out the conditions to end the 
conflict, made no mention of Iran or Syria ‹ a sign of Russia's insistence that 
hard evidence proving their complicity is missing. Syria can exert pressure to 
try and calm the conflict but it lost the power to disarm Hezbollah when it 
withdrew its soldiers from Lebanon last year, Rabbo said in an interview.

Iran yesterday vowed to support Syria if it's attacked. Iranian foreign ministry
spokesperson, Hamid Reza Asefi, warned that an Israeli attack on Syria would 
result in "unimaginable damages" for the Jewish state.

There's no lack of support on the streets of Damascus for these kinds of 
threats, fuelled by decades of anger at failing to regain the Israeli-occupied 
Golan Heights. "We want the war to come here," said sales clerk Laoe Tabsha, 23,
when asked if he feared the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict would spread. "We're all 
ready to fight Israel and this time, Iran will be with us."

Many Arabs already considered Hezbollah the only Arab force to defeat the 
Israeli army when Israel withdrew its soldiers from south Lebanon in 2000. Its 
bombing Friday of an Israeli ship, killing several marines, has increased its 
legendary status.

Said ice-cream merchant, Mohammed Sabra Kharajah, 48: "Hezbollah is fighting for
all the Arabs. They are a resistance movement. We don't want war, but if it 
comes, we are ready."

There's also a strong sense among Syrians that Israel's bombing of Lebanon's 
infrastructure, and the killing of about 145 civilians, is grossly 
disproportionate to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that triggered the 

"What Hezbollah did was a military operation. They didn't go after civilians. 
For two soldiers, Israel is destroying Lebanon. Is that right?" said Hassan 
Jeroudi, 68. "I saw the wars of '48, of '67, of '73 and of '82 ‹ believe me, the
terrorist is Israel."

Analysts believe the scale of Israel's retaliation has surprised even Hezbollah.
A similar kidnapping of Israeli soldiers several years ago resulted in a 
prisoner exchange and Hezbollah believed the same would occur this time, they 

The anger is fuelled by powerful images ‹ the front page of the Syrian Times 
yesterday showed a dismembered and charred body from a civilian convoy hit by an
Israeli missile ‹ plus thousands of Lebanese tourists and residents taking 
refuge in Syria.

Damascus hotels are packed and the Red Crescent is trying to shelter the human 

Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.

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