Damascus, Syria — The Syrian capital is a soft city, filled with gardens and fountains, strollers and shoppers. They offer a sharp contrast to the daily headlines in Syria's state-run news media warning of imminent war with Israel.
For weeks newspapers in both Israel and Syria have been reporting troop buildups by the other side in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where they face each other at distances of as little as 200 yards. Israel has emphasized the Soviet rearming and retraining of the Syrian armed forces as well as the introduction into Syria of SAM-5 long-range surface-to-air missiles.
But Western analysts here do not believe the Syrians are preparing for an immediate conflict. ''The Syrians don't want to start a war,'' a Western diplomat said bluntly, ''nor do their Soviet allies, who feel it is too dangerous to play with these weapons.''
Senior Israeli officials, on the other hand, insist Israel does not want to initiate a war, but they do not rule out the possibility of a future conflict.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said oZ Sunday that Syria was clearly ''getting ready'' for a future war with Israel, citing Syria's demands in weapons discussions with the Soviet Union for complete ''parity'' with Israel as an indication that the Syrians were moving in that direction. Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Levy said that ''direct fighting with the Syrian Army on all fronts'' was ''a real possibility.''
Syrian officials are convinced that Israel, backed by the United States, will inevitably start a war if Syria turns down a US-sponsored agreement on Israeli troop withdrawals.
In the Syrian capital there is little sign of war fever. Restaurants and shops are full, cafes jammed in the evening. Wedding processions honk gaily through the streets on Friday nights. Although some merchants and intellectuals ask visitors if they think war is imminent, few seem to take it too seriously.
Despite rumors of hoarding and of military call-ups, well-connected Western diplomats say they have seen few signs of either. ''If they were storing extra flour in a big way, we would have to know,'' said a source from a grain-exporting country, ''and we haven't seen it.''
Why then the outcry in the Syrian media?
''The Syrian leadership believes Israel is expansionist and can't be stopped by peaceful means so they think war will happen sometime in the next few months, '' explained a diplomatic analyst in Damascus. ''By warning wildly they might postpone the day.''
Another analyst added, ''They want to be ready if anything happens. Anyway, the heightened tension makes Syria more important in the Arab world and strengthens President Assad's reputation as the 'steadfast president.' ''
Syrian officials insist they have no intention of attacking Israel - for now. In private, they admit that even with new Soviet arms, Syria would lose.
''Syria is not in a position now to launch an attack on Israel or on US interests,'' a senior official of the ruling Baath Party says. ''That does not mean that Syria is not preparing for the future when it is strong enough,'' he adds. But he notes that for the near future, Syria is ''in a defensive position.''
However, Syrian officials say they are willing to risk the Israeli attack they are sure is forthcoming, and they believe it will be far more costly for Israel than were Israel's battles with Syria last summer.
Much of the optimism is based on the Soviet Union's revamping of Syrian air defenses, but it is equally based on Syria's belief that their ground forces will offer Israel a tough challange.
''Any Israeli aggression would serve our long-term objectives,'' says Muhammad Haydar, head of the foreign relations bureau of the Baath Party. ''We believe that although we cannot achieve full military victory, we can inflict considerable losses and protract the period of the war.''
Analysts here doubt that Syria would be interested in provoking a limited war because they believe it would be hard to keep under control. To protect its Air Force, Israel would have to try to take out Syrian missile batteries, presumably including the Russian-manned SAM-5 sites inside Syria, creating a risk of an East-West conflict.
Moreover, there is no firm assessment among analysts of the extent of the Soviet commitment to assist Syria militarily. It is believed that the Soviets would provide aid if Syria proper were attacked. But it is unclear whether this would mean only air defenses or more extensive aid such as ground forces, which many analysts consider unlikely.
It is also unclear whether the Soviet Union would use the SAM-5 missiles in a battle limited to the Bekaa. This raises the question of who will make the final decision on use of the SAM-5s: the Syrians (who insist they have the say) or the Soviets who man them.
However, should the draft agreement between Israel and Lebanon not be implemented and Israeli troops remain in the Bekaa, analysts worry that a conflict could be sparked unintentionally or by Israeli retaliation against PLO or Lebanese infiltrators whom Syria allows to cross through its lines.
Even if Israeli troops withdraw unilaterally to 45 kilometers from Israel's northern border - a much-discussed option if Syria keeps its troops in Lebanon - Syrian and Israeli soldiers would still be facing each other in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.