Israel and the United States are closely coordinating their very public warnings to Syrian President Hafez Assad that he has endangered the fragile status quo. Western diplomats say the Americans and Israelis are taking a calculated risk. In going public with concerns over Syrian moves in Lebanon and alleged Syrian involvement in terrorism, these diplomats say, the US and Israel are betting that the public pressure will persuade Mr. Assad to change his tactics. The danger of this approach is that it could lead to a further deterioration of the already tense situation, they say.
``You have got to play a fairly sophisticated chess game with the Syrians,'' one diplomat says. ``You cannot convey weakness. It is a constant balancing act between talking strongly and avoiding escalation.''
In the past two weeks, Israel and the US have used a series of public statements and intelligence leaks to the press to raise pressure on Assad.
[Joseph C. Harsch writes on US and Israeli reluctance to use military force against Syria, Page 9.]
``There have been hints now that the message is getting through,'' the diplomat says.
Underlying these actions is Syria's building of fortifications in Lebanon's strategic Bekaa Valley. The Syrian Army has built embankments and bunkers south of its current deployments there, according to Israeli and Western intelligence reports.
When Israel withdrew from the Bekaa a year ago, it believed it had an unspoken ``agreement'' with Assad that Syrian troops would not move south to fill the vacuum left by Israel. Israel views the building of the fortifications as violating that agreement.
Israel knew of the fortifications more than three months ago, Israeli military analysts say, but said nothing publicly while it allowed the US privately to convey Israel's concerns to Assad.
When it became clear that Syria would not dismantle the unmanned fortifications, which Syria insists are legitimate defensive positions, Israel began allowing leaks in the press here. The situation was further complicated by Israeli intelligence information that Syria was involved in the April 17 attempt to plant a bomb on an El Al passenger plane at London's Heathrow Airport.
``Taken in the abstract, the Syrian construction of fortifications is not a military threat to Israel. Neither was Syria's deployment of SA-5 missiles [in the Bekaa], and neither is involvement in terrorism,'' says a Western diplomat. ``But taken in context, against the Syrians' stated plan to reach a point militarily where they could face Israel without the help of another Arab state, the Israelis feel they have reason to be concerned.''
The Syrians have responded to the American and Israeli warnings by denying that they are involved in terrorism, by accusing the US and Israel of planning a joint military strike against Syria, and by stating that they have no intention of going to war against Israel at the moment. [On Wednesday, Lebanese radio stations said Israel had moved tanks into its ``security zone.'' But this report could not be confirmed.]
The ongoing verbal exchanges, one Western analyst says, ``are a fascinating example of classic, textbook-type gamesmanship.'' But it is gamesmanship with the very real possiblity of degenerating into a clash, either in Lebanon or on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
``The view here is that it is better to shout about it when the situation starts to deteriorate rather than to face something you don't want to later on,'' says Alex Fishman, military correspondent for Israeli daily Al Hamishmar. He says the Israeli political and military echelons have welcomed US involvement in the crisis.
``The Syrians have a little more confidence in the Americans than they do in the Israelis,'' Fishman says. ``It is good that the Americans have said there is a tense situation, we understand it, and we shall control it.''
US Secretary of State George Shultz made the strongest US statement to date on the gravity of the situation at a press conference in Washington Wednesday. ``There is a big Syrian buildup,'' Mr. Shultz said, which had helped create ``a highly tense situation.''
In another example of the balance the Americans say they are pursuing, the Shultz statement was followed by an administration acknowledgment that Syria continues to be helpful in seeking the release of five Americans held hostage in Lebanon.
``I think there is just enough tension being maintained [by Israel and the US] to show that the Israelis are not pushovers, but that they are dealing with this rationally,'' the diplomat says. ``Assad likes rationality.''