Syria braces for possible Israeli strike near border

In the post-Sinai Middle East, Syria is sticking to its guns in deed and in principle.

Syria vigorously maintains the price of Egypt's Sinai was the Syrian Golan Heights, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Soon it will also be south Lebanon, they add.

Western diplomats agree it is only a matter of time before Israel invades Lebanon, and say Syria is preparing militarily to stop the Israelis from coming too close.

Syria still spits out the Camp David accords as a failure in which Egypt sold out its Arab brothers in return for being an Israeli lackey. Syria believes there is no reason to talk about returning Egypt to the Arab embrace until Camp David is renounced.

The government emphasizes it has always been ready to defend the Lebanese and Palestinians from Israeli attack.

''The decision we have declared many times previously is that any Israeli aggression against any piece of Arab territory--we will resist this aggression with our available capabilities and this decision holds,'' says Information Minister Ahmed Iskandar Ahmed.

Last summer and this April 21 when the Israelis bombed Palestinian targets in Lebanon, Syria sent up a few of its Soviet-made jet fighters to battle vastly superior American-made F-15 and F-16 jet bombers, diplomats point out.

The inevitable sacrifice of one or two planes per dogfight will be the extent of Syria's commitment to Lebanon--until a ''significant'' Syrian installation is hit, the diplomats say. If the Israelis strike the Syrian SAM-6 missile sites in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and just inside the Syrian border, Syria will fight - and lose, they predict.

However, there are fears the Israelis also might strike the Damascus air defense network if they launch an invasion meant to finish the Palestinians and break the back of the one unsubdued Arab military power, observers say.

Diplomats say Syria hopes to contain the battle to southern Lebanon and, to this end, has reinforced its units near the Qaroun Lake with elements from two armored divisions.

''The Syrians are not looking to be drawn into a fight in south Lebanon, but they are making contingency plans,'' one Western envoy said.

''They will hold back as long as possible because they are going to be hurt. Their thinking, therefore, is that it is better if they choose the time to get involved to minimize their losses,'' another diplomat said.

The Qaroun Lake is situated north of the imaginary line the Israelis have drawn to designate how far south the Syrians may deploy without triggering Israeli impunity.

It is also the site of a dam controlling the flow of the Litani River. Experts and political analysts have said for quite some time the Israelis want to control the river flow to supply water to its northern settlements.

Syria's only likely ally in this would be the Soviet Union. The current disarray in the Arab world means no other Arab state could or would help substantially, observers say.

Some diplomats say higher level officials have spoken more often and more confidently about confronting Israel. This stiffened resolve emanates from more concrete pledges of support from the Soviets, they believe.

Those diplomats say this buoyancy in Syrian pronouncements postdated the visit of Soviet Deputy Defense Minister Pavel Kutakhov in mid-March.

Syria's Deputy Foreign Minister Nasser Qaddour told the Monitor that the Soviet Union would come through in time of need.

However, the diplomats think the Soviets will limit their involvement to sending technical staff to man Syrian air defense and possibly run the SAM missiles. The Soviets, of course, could send more equipment, but the diplomats say the Syrians don't have the trained military personnel to operate what they already have.

The Syrians would rely on the Soviets mostly for political support internationally to wangle a cease-fire before the Israelis did too much harm too close to home, diplomats and observers agree.

''The Syrians have to be the center of the Arab world and they can and will mess up anything that cuts them out,'' one envoy says.

One Syrian official, when asked what would happen in the Middle East after April 25, had replied simply ''April 26.''

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