Better the devil you know: Israel's military chiefs are concerned about a Syrian arms build-up, but the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights reported no significant changes in Syrian deployments and crticised the "alarmist Israeli media" for its reportage.

Author:Blanche, Ed

FOR SOME TIME now there have been persistent reports that Syria has been acquiring new weapons systems for its armed forces--in particular its spearhead missile forces. Few of these reports have been independently verified, but, with the Middle East in ferment from the Gulf to the Maghreb, Israeli military planners have warned that Damascus is up to something.

The Israel Defence Force's strategic assessment for 2007 has warned of the possibility of a conflagration with Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon, in the coming year. The general consensus within the Israeli intelligence establishment is that Damascus, its long-neglected military still poorly equipped, is unlikely to initiate a major conventional conflict this year.

But there are those who fear the worst.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the defence establishment on 25 February to prepare for possible conflict. Syria and Israel are officially at war although there have been no open hostilities between them since Israel's June 1982 invasion of Lebanon; however Syria continues to support Hizbullah and certain Palestinian factions.

Olmert may have been spurred to put on a hawkish front because he has been widely blamed for Israel's failure to crush Hizbullah in the 2006 summer war. Many in Israel believe the furore is close to bringing down his government. There is little doubt that Olmert, who became premier only because Ariel Sharon was felled by a stroke weeks before the war erupted, has become Israel's most unpopular premier.

Still, some Israeli commanders have suggested that armed confrontation with Syria is possible. One scenario is that Damascus embarks on a limited war on Israel if the conflict with Hizbullah, unresolved from the 2006 summer war, reignites--as many in Lebanon and Israel fear it will--or if Iran is attacked by the US.

Martin van Creveld, professor of military history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and widely respected as Israel's leading analyst, is convinced that President Bashar Al Assad of Syria is preparing for war and concludes that "everything considered, October 2008" is the most likely period that Damascus will initiate the conflict.

Van Creveld believes that the disarray in the Israeli military--and the climate of social failure that has gripped the nation as a whole--in the vituperative aftermath of the 2006 war with Hizbullah, will encourage the Syrians to take the initiative. His assessment, published in early March, is worth noting in some...

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