Soviet-backed Syria rattles its sabers

A crescendo of rhetoric about imminent danger of an Israeli-Syrian war had been flowing from the Syrian capital of Damascus, from Moscow, and to a lesser extent from Jerusalem as Secretary of State George Shultz arrived in the Mideast.

But informed Israeli and Western analysts insist the talk is so far not substantiated by facts on the ground.

Analysts here say neither side really wants a war. ''There's a lot of hype going on,'' a Western analyst said, ''but the real danger is one of a self-fulfilling prophecy.''

Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir said April 22 that Syrian tension was ''entirely artificial and we have absolutely no intention of attacking Syria.''

Earlier Defense Minister Moshe Arens had theorized that the Syrian military activity in question might be ''a preparation for war'' but might also reflect Syrian apprehension ''of an Israeli operation.''

This is the latest in a round of saber-rattling claims and counterclaims highlighted March 30 by charges from Syria's main ally, the Soviet Union, that Israel was planning a ''piratic strike'' against Syria. State-run Damascus radio said April 21 that Israel was reinforcing troops in eastern Lebanon in preparation for an imminent attack on Syria.

The French newspaper Le Monde reported on Friday from Damascus that certain types of Syrian reservists were being called up and that there was a shortage of some basic commodities, indicating military requisitioning. This is the latest in a barrage of similar charges in the Syrian news media in recent weeks.

Many analysts here say they are confused as to the reasons for the war posturing, especially from the Soviet and Syrian side. A major question being asked here is whether more Soviet involvement in Syria makes the outbreak of war more or less likely.

The tension has increased as Israel and Lebanon appeared to be drawing closer to an agreement on a formula for Israeli troop withdrawals from Lebanon. Progress apparently hit a serious snag last week in the wake of the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. At the next stage, Syria - with the Soviet Union in the background - must decide whether the terms are attractive enough for withdrawal of Syrian troops. Without such a withdrawal Israel will not leave Lebanon. Some observers see the war talk as a means of strengthening Syria's hand in negotiations.

Israeli and Western experts say there is some troop movement by both sides on the potential battlefield, Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, but nothing to warrant the warlike headlines. The Syrians are believed to have roughly 40,000 troops in Lebanon and on the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Western media report that Israel retains about 30,000 troops in Lebanon. (The Monitor has received reliable reports from Washington indicating the figure may be as much as 60 percent below that.) Israel gives out no figures on troop deployment.

While Israeli military sources say Syria has been moving troops to the front line, they add that much of this movement can be attributed to redeploying from static winter positions. ''They are simply reoccupying positions previously abandoned,'' an Israeli military source said. This source insisted Israel had not shifted its pattern of deployment. This source also noted that although a number of attacks against Israeli soldiers have taken place along the Beirut-Damascus highway, the front lines in the Bekaa Valley are quiet.

One reason for the uncertainty here about Syrian intentions is the tremendous Soviet effort to replenish Syrian losses and revitalize the Syrian military after the war in Lebanon last summer. The Soviets have not only replaced but also upgraded and increased the numbers of Syrian planes, tanks, vehicles, and combat equipment.

Most significant has been the Soviet restructuring of the Syrian air defense system, which Israel shattered during the war. Two batteries of SAM-5 long-range ground-to-air missiles, each manned by roughly 900 Soviet crewmen, were introduced, providing a threat to Israel's Hawkeye early-warning planes, which played a crucial role in Israel's air superiority during the Lebanon war. Moreover, the Soviets have revamped Syria's air defenses with additional SAM-6, SAM-8, and SAM-9 missile batteries as well as more sophisticated radar, better integration of operations, and better communication with Moscow.

Does the Soviets' heavy rearming of Syria increase the possibility of war? Many well-informed analysts here see the Soviets actually as a restraining factor. They say the Soviet involvement - and even its saber-rattling comments - is aimed principally at winning back prestige lost within the Arab world when Israel decimated Soviet equipment with impunity, and at convincing the US that any Mideast negotiations cannot succeed without the involvement of the Soviets. This school of thought notes that the Syrian air defense system is now heavily dependent on the Soviets, who alone man and have access to the SAM-5 sites. With 4,000 Soviet advisers in Syria, up from 2,500 before the Lebanon war, according to Mr. Arens, the Soviets are far more intimately involved in Syrian military operations than before the Lebanon war.

Another major deterrent to war: With Soviets manning the SAM-5s, any attempt by Israel to take out Syria's air defense system could trigger an East-West conflict. Military analysts here say this time Israel probably would not be able to avoid taking losses.

Analysts here note that Israel - despite frequent references to its position in Lebanon only 21 miles from Damascus - would probably be reluctant to enter another major Arab capital, especially given Soviet indications that they would help defend their ally's territory.

Moreover, with Israelis still split over the merits of the Lebanon war, it would take a clear Syrian provocation to create the consensus for a new war. Whatever Israel's intensions really are, however, a key question is how the Syrians perceive them.

''If the Syrians believe that Israel wants to get (Syrian) troops out of Lebanon by war and not by negotiations, they might miscalculate and make a wrong move which the Soviets could not control,'' an Israeli analyst speculated.

Another fear here is that Syrian overconfidence, engendered by Soviet backing , might trigger a military action. Defense Minister Arens has said that Israel will not be drawn into a war of attrition, nor should the Syrians have any illusions that a limited war would remain limited. A Western observer noted, ''The danger with all this war talk is that one spark may set off a conflict that nobody really wants.''

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