Syria says it was targeted by Israeli aircraft

Damascus said it fired on an Israeli warplane early Thursday morning after it dropped 'munitions' in northwest Syria.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Syria accused Israel of violating its airspace early Thursday morning and said it reserved the right to retaliate, aggravating already tense relations between the two countries and stoking concern about the outbreak of a new regional war.

A military spokesman said Syria air defenses fired at the aircraft, which broke the sound barrier and dropped "munitions" in the northwest of the country, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. The Israeli army refused comment, saying the accusations didn't merit a response.

The fallout from last year's war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah has destabilized relations between Jerusalem and Damascus – two old enemies who have avoided direct conflict for more than three decades.

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Bilateral chatter between Israel and Syria has swung precariously in recent months between speculation about a renewal of peace negotiations and predictions of a new war over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syrian in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

"These are not normal times in the Syrian-Israeli military relationship," says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of the Web-based opinion forum Bitterlemons.org. "That's why everyone is on tinder hooks."

Concerned that Israel's deterrence was eroded by Hizbullah's month-long rocket campaign against northern Israeli towns and cities, officials and experts have said Syrian President Bashar Assad was more likely launch a military campaign to recover the Golan.

Mr. Alpher says there is a fear in the Israeli security establishment that Syria might try to launch a low-level war around the Golan Heights to improve its bargaining position in peace talks.

Syria, meanwhile, has said it fears it could be the target of an Israeli offensive aimed at restoring the tarnished image of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) following the war in Lebanon.

The statements were accompanied by a shift in military deployments on both sides of the border that were interpreted as potentially hostile. While Syria has acquired military hardware to modernize its army, Israel has conducted on-camera simulations of battle in Israel. In an effort to calm anxieties over a war, spokespersons from both governments later said they didn't believe that the intentions of the other side were hostile.

On Thursday, the Syrian news agency said the Israeli plane came eastward from the Mediterranean Sea and crossed over its northern border.

"We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way," the Syrian spokesman said.

Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general now at a strategic institute linked with Tel Aviv University, said it was unlikely Israeli aircraft would be flying in northwest Syria because there are few strategic targets there.

The standoff has been complicated by repeated Syrian calls for Israel to resume peace talks broken off in early 2000, as well as reports of an unofficial Israel-Syrian back channel set up to explore the possibility of new negotiations.

Mr. Brom says that even though he believes that the back and forth between Jerusalem and Damascus is merely a game of geopolitical chicken, the risks of war have increased. "This is a situation that is ripe for miscalculation and misunderstanding." Syria accused Israel of violating its airspace early Thursday morning and said it reserved the right to retaliate, aggravating already tense relations between the two countries and stoking concern about the outbreak of a new regional war.

A military spokesman said Syria air defenses fired at the aircraft, which broke the sound barrier and dropped "munitions" in the northwest of the country, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency. The Israeli army refused comment, saying the accusations didn't merit a response.

The fallout from last year's war between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah has destabilized relations between Jerusalem and Damascus – two old enemies who have avoided direct conflict for more than three decades.

Bilateral chatter between Israel and Syria has swung precariously in recent months between speculation about a renewal of peace negotiations and predictions of a new war over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syrian in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

"These are not normal times in the Syrian-Israeli military relationship," says Yossi Alpher, the coeditor of the Web-based opinion forum Bitterlemons.org. "That's why everyone is on tinder hooks."

Concerned that Israel's deterrence was eroded by Hizbullah's month-long rocket campaign against northern Israeli towns and cities, officials and experts have said Syrian President Bashar Assad was more likely launch a military campaign to recover the Golan.

Mr. Alpher says there is a fear in the Israeli security establishment that Syria might try to launch a low-level war around the Golan Heights to improve its bargaining position in peace talks.

Syria, meanwhile, has said it fears it could be the target of an Israeli offensive aimed at restoring the tarnished image of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) following the war in Lebanon.

The statements were accompanied by a shift in military deployments on both sides of the border that were interpreted as potentially hostile. While Syria has acquired military hardware to modernize its army, Israel has conducted on-camera simulations of battle in Israel. In an effort to calm anxieties over a war, spokespersons from both governments later said they didn't believe that the intentions of the other side were hostile.

On Thursday, the Syrian news agency said the Israeli plane came eastward from the Mediterranean Sea and crossed over its northern border.

"We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way," the Syrian spokesman said.

Shlomo Brom, a former Israeli general now at a strategic institute linked with Tel Aviv University, said it was unlikely Israeli aircraft would be flying in northwest Syria because there are few strategic targets there.

The standoff has been complicated by repeated Syrian calls for Israel to resume peace talks broken off in early 2000, as well as reports of an unofficial Israel-Syrian back channel set up to explore the possibility of new negotiations.

Mr. Brom says that even though he believes that the back and forth between Jerusalem and Damascus is merely a game of geopolitical chicken, the risks of war have increased. "This is a situation that is ripe for miscalculation and misunderstanding."

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