DAMASCUS, SYRIA — The symbol of Israel's military supremacy could not be more obvious - or galling. On a clear day, residents of Syria's capital, Damascus, can see the peak of Mt. Hermon, captured by Israel in 1967 and now an Israeli early-warning station that bristles with eavesdropping equipment.
Syria is still technically at war with the Jewish state. So the Israeli positions remind Syria that it is on the defensive.
There is calm, but it is imposed by a military imbalance that has both shaped the Arab-Israeli conflict and spawned an arms race for weapons of mass destruction.
The dynamic is simple. In the Middle East, only Israel has had a nuclear arsenal since the 1960s, creating a problem for its Arab enemies: how to attack Israel without provoking a nuclear response. And how to build some deterrent that will prevent Israel from striking first.
Today, Israel has signed peace deals with Egypt and Jordan. But talks with Palestinians have all but collapsed, and Israel halted American-brokered negotiations with Syria in February 1996.
Israel has never used its nuclear-weapons capability. But estimates of Israel's atomic arsenal range from 100 to 200 warheads, an ultimate-weapon approach meant to offset the vast Arab numerical troop superiority.
Israel is capable of equipping warheads with nuclear-blast yields up to 100 kilotons. That is equivalent to 100,000 tons of TNT, five times more powerful than the bomb that flattened Hiroshima.
Israel is also capable of using much smaller, "tactical" nuclear weapons. It has long had "full access" to unclassified US material on such devices, and Israeli officers have taken part in US tactical-nuclear exercises, according to Anthony Cordesman, co-director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He recently published a benchmark series of books on Mideast strategic issues.
In June, the United States Department of Commerce listed an Israeli nuclear facility, along with others in China and Russia, as engaging in weapons proliferation. The result: an all-out effort by its adversaries to counter Israel's nuclear arsenal with chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of their own.
Syria has been at the forefront. It is widely believed to have one of the largest, most-advanced chemical-weapons stockpiles in the region. The 24 Scud-PIP missiles - often referred to as Scud Cs - that Syria received from North Korea in 1991 bring any target in Israel into range, according to London-based Jane's Intelligence Review.
"Israel is surrounded by more than 220 million Arabs and must make a choice," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University. "Peace can't be achieved by piling up more weapons that can destroy the Arab world 100 times," he says.
Both sides are now engaged in a war of words, with Israel accusing Syria of preparing a "military option" and developing extremely lethal VX nerve gas. Israeli defense chiefs last October asked for $1-billion budget boost, citing increased chances of war with Syria.
But diplomats doubt President Hafez al-Assad would launch an offensive. The result, say some Western estimates, could be the loss of 80 percent of his military inventory. Mr. Assad noted the imbalance in May. "Those who have nuclear arms don't have the right to criticize others who have other types of weapons," he said.
Says a well-connected diplomatic source here: "There has been a steady effort over the last five years to acquire weapons of mass destruction. All analysis indicates it is a deterrent against an Israeli first strike."
Syria, still on the US State Department list of "terrorist" nations, and Egypt are working on new chemical, biological, and missile projects. Others, such as Iran, are said to supplement those with nuclear ambitions. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was well advanced in its pursuit of nuclear capability.
"With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the supermarket is now open for business," says a Western military analyst in Cairo.
Russia's elite Strategic Nuclear Forces, for example, may be less able to control its vast nuclear arsenal, much less police cash-strapped arms dealers.
"Never before have so many nuclear weapons coexisted with such unstable conditions," notes a recent report by the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Israel and Syria came close to a deal in early 1996 in which the Israelis would have withdrawn from the strategic Golan Heights - and Mt. Hermon - in exchange for peace. But since then, tension has grown as the Arab-Israeli peace process has faltered. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows that Israel will never pull back. Both Israeli and Syrian forces have carried out high-profile military exercises on the heights.
"Israel is attempting to use the instruments of war in order to establish peace," says Maj. Gen. Ahmed Abdel-Halim at the Middle East Research Center in Cairo. "If the current imbalance continues, peace will not last."
Syria's recent problems in catching up with the high-cost technology of what one analyst terms "a regional superpower" are the most acute. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant an end to backing from Moscow. And the Gulf War, in which Syria took part in the US-led coalition, illustrated how easily high-tech systems can destroy conventional armor-heavy armies like Iraq's - and Syria's.
The outcome has been greater reliance on weapons of mass destruction. Biological weapons, in particular, can be as lethal as a tactical nuclear weapon.
"Syria wants its doomsday toy," says a Western military analyst. "The quest has been continuous throughout the peace process. The Iranians are involved, the North Koreans, and maybe China.
"The question is: What do they want to do with it?" he asks.
But from the Israeli side, the nuclear "shield" may in fact limit Israel's options. "Israel's nuclear deterrence has had mixed results," says Zeev Maoz, director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "True, it has changed attitudes in the region, but it hasn't prevented war."
"What if Syria launched a strike at our military-industrial complex?" he asks. "Could we morally respond with nuclear weapons? Short of a threat to Israel's existence, it is very difficult to use them." Still, nuclear capability has helped Israel turn the Mideast strategic balance in its favor.
"No country would ever admit to blackmail by nuclear or biological weapons," says an Israeli military analyst. "But this has made the difference. So the arms race goes on."