Pink carnations grow in the cool air outside the Syrian commander's hut. "Always it's quiet here," the commander, a pleasant young man from Aleppo who speaks good English, said June 7. "Sometimes the Israelis move up a few tanks. But we don't think there is a major buildup. But we cannot see what is going on -- as they can."
He nods toward Gibraltar-shaped Tel Abu Nada ("father of the dew"), one of a dozen Israeli highland strongholds that command the Damascus plain and can monitor the lowlands halfway to the capital, which is only 40 miles away. Israeli posts form a horseshoe around El Quneitra.
Just 300 yards from us the Israeli flag flutters. A kibbutz tractor works the green, manicured fields, fed by water coming off snow-streaked Mt. Hermon.
For the same reason that the Israeli tractor driver feels confident enough to plow right up to the border wire, the Syrian land is untended. "If you are Syrian," asks a government official, "how can you come back to live here with the Israeli guns all around?"
Only 40 to 50 people live in the city of El Quneitra which, before it was overrun by the Israelis in the 1967 war, was Syria's district capital and home to 75,000. Villas, shops, office buildings lie collapsed on themselves, some pitted with bullet holes, left this way when Israeli forces withdrew in 1974. (Before the Israelis returned El Quneitra to Syria, they bulldozed much of the town.)
"This used to be a vacation town for many people in Damascus," says the official. "Each house had a garden. But they left it a dead city."
Despite the bitter memories, Syrian officials say no border incidents have occurred in the past seven years. Not even the current tension between Israel and Syria has caused a noticeable surge in military activity in the region, contrary to allegations from Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Those Syrian forces that have been moved south are dug into off-the-road positions, and there is virtually no tension in the air.
"All of the problems are because of the Israeli elections," says a Syrian official. "This is why there is so much talk. This is why the newspapers make it seem we are at war."
Syrian soldiers report that they occasionally see Israeli reconnaissance aircraft streaking over the hills to the west, flying over southern Lebanon -- where both sides acknowledge the main problem is.
Here, however, the carnations placidly bloom. And this is the story in most of Syria today. Damascus and other Syrian cities show no signs of extraordinary military activity, diplomats report.
The shady, labrynthine Souk el Hamadiyeh in the center of the capital is still bustling each day with Arab and European shoppers. Syrian leathercrafters , tinsmiths, coffee grinders shrug their shoulders when the question of war comes up.
Western observers in Damascus say that a decidedly unmartial atmosphere is found in all parts of the country, despite a general call-up issued last week. One doesn't see great exortations on television; one sees "BJ and the Bear" and Arab soap operas.
The calm could be due, however, more to fatalism than to confidence about the future, says one perceptive watcher of Syrian culture. Most Syrians are practical and do not overestimate the strength of their forces against the Israelis, especially since Egypt's President Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein have let it be known that they probably would not come to Syria's aid.
Diplomats say, however, that longstanding internal problems in the country have died down, most likely because of the modestly revived nationalism now at work. Except for an isolated incident, no serious civil disturbances have been detected in several weeks.
What lies ahead for Syria, Lebanon, and the Middle East is uncertain, especially if Menachem Begin retains the Israeli premiership in the June 30 elections. Begin has played on the anti-Syrian phobias of a large part of the Israeli electorate, charging that the Syrians are out to create a "greater Syria" including Lebanon, that they intend to annihilate the "Christians of Lebanon," and that they are massing troops and equipment on the Syrian-Israeli border.
And despite today's quiet, there is no settlement yet of the Syrian-Israeli "missile crisis" or of the Lebanese tangle from which it stems. The tense edge may now be gone, but when US envoy Philip C. Habib returns to Damascus late this week he will be working with the same set of Israeli demands and Syrian intractability he left two weeks ago.
Intercession by Arab powers, most notably Saudi Arabia, is not yet believed to have gained leverage with President Assad, according to several Western observers.