- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2007

TEL AVIV — Though Israel hasn’t confirmed reports that it bombed strategic targets in Syria last week, a top army officer cited the claims yesterday as evidence that Israel has rehabilitated its deterrent against Damascus since last year’s war with Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s ability to continue its missile bombardment of Israeli cities throughout the war was seen as a blow to Israel’s ability to intimidate enemies, raising concern that countries like Syria would be emboldened to engage the Jewish state on the battlefield for the first time in more than 30 years.

But the absence of a Syrian response to what it called an infiltration last week shows Israel’s deterrence is more robust than previously thought, say officials and experts.

According to a report in the Ha’aretz newspaper, intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told a meeting of the parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s image of strength is influencing Syria and Iran.

While Syrian officials say Damascus plans to retaliate for the attack, the incident lost prominence in the Syrian government-run press by the end of the week.

“The significance of getting back to normal is to erase all of the media and propaganda achievements that Syria got out of the Lebanon war,” said Eyal Zisser, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University.

“It’s as if we discovered [Syrian President Bashar Assad’s] bluff. He’s been threatening for a year. And suddenly something happens, and he’s helpless. That is significant.” Mr. Zisser said.

He warned however, that the increase in tensions along the Israel-Syria border will continue.

Despite U.S. press reports that the target of last week’s attack was a site thought to be involved with Syria-North Korea collaboration on nuclear weapons, Israeli officials continued to dodge reporters’ questions.

Experts said that strategy appeared to be working, because it allowed Israel to avoid international criticism over a strike that required Israeli jets to penetrate deep into Syria.

“It shows that even the Israeli government has become PR savvy and that actions are stronger than words,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst.

Indeed, no major Western country came to the defense of Syria or condemned Israel over the reports of the infiltration. The fallout is being watched closely by one of Syria’s main allies — Iran.

“I don’t see the U.N. Security Council getting together and issuing a condemnation. I think the Iranians are quietly worried, and they view it as a test of Syria’s deterrence, and as a test of the world’s reaction to Israel’s action in the region,” said Mr. Javedanfar, the author of a book on Iran’s nuclear program.

“The muted response from the U.S. and Europe is something to worry about [for Tehran]. Because today it could be Syria, tomorrow it could be Iran.”

Relations between Israel and Syria seem to have been teetering between the threat of war and hints at peace negotiations.

Both countries have been moving military personnel and hardware in and around the Golan Heights, and Israel even broadcast a trial attack on a mock Syrian village.

But there have also been reports about informal back-channel peace talks between emissaries of the two governments.

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