On the brink

ONE cannot discount the possibility of a war breaking out between Syria and Israel. The basic situation is that each suspects the other of planning a surprise attack. If there is to be a war, each wants the advantage of striking first.

The Syrians are reported to have a force of six divisions deployed along the Golan Heights front. They attacked on that front during the 1973 war and nearly drove the Israelis off the heights. There is no doubt that they would like to be more successful a second time.

Of late they have been advancing their defense line on the Bekaa Valley front. The Israelis call it a ``creep.'' The Syrians have pushed their tank and artillery lines within some 10 miles of Israeli positions in southern Lebanon. If these new positions are strong enough to produce a stalemate on that part of the front, the Syrians would be free to concentrate their main forces for a big drive against the Golan Heights.

Syria's overall military strength relative to Israel is greater than ever before, and probably still increasing. The Syrian Army is now organized in nine divisions of 15,000 men each. Of the nine, five are armored. The quality of the tanks in the armored divisions has been raised since the unsuccessful attack on the Golan Heights in the 1973 war.

In 1971, Syria had a total of 880 tanks. By 1981, it was up to 2,920 tanks. Today it is rated by the International Institute of Strategic Studies at 4,200 tanks. Israel, according to the same source, has 3,600 tanks.

Syria's defenses against Israel's famous Air Force have been similarly improved. In 1981, the Syrians had an Air Defense Command of 15,000 men, with 50 batteries of surface-to-air missiles. Today the Air Defense Command is rated at 60,000 men with 63 batteries.

Since last November, when the Israelis shot down two Syrian MIG-23s flying inside Syrian airspace, the Syrians have moved their SAM batteries up to the border with Lebanon. This has caused the Israelis to patrol farther away from the Syrian border.

Syria has a total population of 11 million. Israel has a population of 4.3 million, of whom some 900,000 are Arabs and 400,000 more actually live in the United States. For military purposes, Israel's population is not much over 3 million.

The Syrian Air Force is not considered yet to be in the same league with Israel's remarkably efficient and effective Air Force. In numbers, the Syrians have about 500 combat aircraft, to 648 for Israel. In quality and performance, it is doubtful that the Syrian Air Force could take the offensive against Israel.

The Syrians, however, have received from the Russians several SS-21 missiles with a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles). Hence, while Israeli cities may still be safe from Syrian aircraft, they are vulnerable to missile attack.

During the past three weeks both Syria and Israel have accused the other of planning an attack. Both have denied the intention to strike. Washington has been calling on both to relax and do nothing rash.

The most likely cause for an attack would be a belief on the part of either Israel or Syria that the other was actually about to strike. In the absence of such a precipitating incident, both have reasons for not striking now.

Since Syrian military strength is on the rise, why strike now when the Syrian position may be more favorable in another year or so? As for Israel, its population is still numb from the losses in the invasion of Lebanon, with little left to show for that major military effort. Israel's people certainly do not want another war now.

The heaviest battle in the 1973 war was fought along the Golan Heights. The Syrians proved to themselves and to the world that they could acquit themselves well in modern tank warfare. But in 1973, they were fighting in cooperation with the Egyptians. The Egyptians made peace with Israel in 1980. If it came to war now, Syria would be fighting alone. Israel could concentrate its entire strength against Syria.

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