- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2001

JERUSALEM — Belligerent rhetoric echoed across the region yesterday after an Israeli air strike against a Syrian radar station in Lebanon raised fears of escalating violence. But analysts predicted the governments in Jerusalem and Damascus would stop short of direct confrontation.
Syrian troops in Lebanon went on high alert early yesterday after the raid the most serious Israeli attack on a Syrian target since the 1982 Lebanon war. Israel was responding to an attack by Hezbollah guerrillas on Saturday.
Damascus threatened to retaliate and Islamic groups said they would rain terror on the Jewish state, though there were no further incidents yesterday.
"I dont think we can expect a direct Syrian military response," said Timur Goksel, head of a U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. "This was an assault against a Syrian position in Lebanon and not in Syria, so I dont think Damascus views it as an attack on its sovereignty."
Israel began the strike after Hezbollah guerrillas killed an Israeli soldier in a missile attack on a tank patrolling the Jewish states northern border.
The Islamic fighters, who succeeded in ousting Israel from south Lebanon a year ago, number only a few hundred, but Israel says they are backed by Syria and equipped by Iran with Sagger anti-tank missiles and Katyusha rockets.
Israeli officials said the air force strike near Beirut signaled a new policy of holding Syria directly responsible for attacks by Hezbollah. "We made it clear to the responsible party there, the Syrians, that the rules of the game have changed," said Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
Syria keeps about 35,000 troops posted in Lebanon, giving it wide influence over the countrys military and domestic policies. But Mr. Goksel, who has been stationed in the region for more than 20 years, said he doubts Israeli assertions that Hezbollah operations are directed from Damascus.
"I dont know if anyone can say with any great authority that Syria has control over Hezbollah attacks," Mr. Goksel said in an interview.
He noted occasional Hezbollah operations that have run counter to Syrian interests, including attacks on Israel carried out while U.S. diplomats were visiting Damascus.
Israel and Syria have fought several wars, and after years of futile peace talks are still formidable foes. Any serious escalation on the Lebanese or Syrian border would open a second front for Israeli troops already bogged down with seven months of fighting in the West Bank and Gaza.
Military officials said this was taken into account when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided late Sunday to strike at the Syrians. Previously, Israeli retaliation had been directed only at Hezbollah, though the groups guerrilla nature makes it difficult to hit.
Mr. Sharon, elected in February on a promise to restore security, has a history of military involvement in Lebanon.
As Israels defense minister in 1982, he engineered an invasion of the tiny country aimed at quashing PLO guerrillas who had used south Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on the Jewish state. The invasion turned into a protracted occupation of southern Lebanon that ended just last year.
Military analysts said Mr. Sharon would be loath to repeat the Lebanon fiasco more than 1,000 Israeli soldiers died in 18 years of occupation but was bent on halting the pin pricks inflicted by Hezbollah, which also killed a soldier in February.
Syrias foreboding response to the raid came from Moscow, where Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa is on an official visit.
"Israel made a terrible mistake in this attack, and it will suffer the appropriate response when the time is right," Mr. Sharaa told reporters.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman blamed Hezbollah for provoking the escalation but also criticized the Israeli retaliatory attacks, which killed three Syrian soldiers.
"We condemn this escalation and the cycle of violence that was initiated by Hezbollah in a clear provocation designed to escalate an already tense situation," said Richard Boucher.
Another State Department official added later: "We want to be fairly even-handed but the fact is that Hezbollah started this one. There is some reproach against Israel for continuing the cycle of violence."
A statement by Hezbollah issued in Beirut said the group would "cut off the enemys arm that reached our land and brothers."
"We will turn Sharons dream of terrorizing our people into a nightmare haunting the defeated army of the invader Zionists, their assemblies and their terrorist bases," the statement said.

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