The specter of renewed war between Israel and Syria pervaded recent news from the Middle East. That likelihood has now receded -- temporarily. The Syrian-Israeli standoff is unique. Both sides are fatalistically resigned to future war. Yet they display a keen understanding of what will trigger reaction by the other -- a quality conspicuously lacking in Israel's relationship with most Arab states.
Israeli officials consistently give Syrian President Hafez Assad high marks for pragmatic behavior and a will to enforce agreements once made -- even tacitly.
But this praise does not extend to Mr. Assad's intentions toward Israel, which remain relentlessly hostile. Syria's military has grown from about 250,000 in 1982 to over 400,000. Advanced Soviet weaponry received since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon has emboldened Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas to claim ``strategic parity'' with Israel. Such a claim rings alarm bells in Tel Aviv, and stirs some to speak of the necessity for preemptive war to destroy Syria's war machine.
Should war come, most military specialists say Israel would ultimately prevail -- but at a significant human, economic, and political cost.
One scenario deemed likely by many analysts goes as follows: A Syrian surprise attack occurs, and makes initial tactical gains in the Golan Heights. Considerable damage from special forces and missile strikes inside Israel proper also occurs. But Syria is gradually pushed back until international pressure produces a cease-fire accepted by both sides. Some Israeli officials believe such a limited ``victory'' is, in fact, Assad's goal as a prelude to entering serious peace negotiations.
It is always hard to predict the political repercussions of war. However, experts foresee several possibilities which would profoundly affect the region as a whole:
Should Assad be perceived as defeated, he may be overthrown. A takeover by Sunni Muslim fundamentalists, who have conspired against him for years, would be possible. In this case, unpredictable leaders adamantly opposed to a political solution with Israel would replace the rational, albeit equally hostile and cunning, Assad.
Fundamentalists elsewhere in the region would be strengthened and decry secular regimes for failing to satisfy popular expectations of decisive victory. Radical fundamentalist elements among the Palestinian movement would gain power, to the detriment of those disposed to compromise. And religious extremism already evident in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and North Africa would be invigorated.
Such a conflict could produce a face-saving reason for Iran and Iraq to halt their conflict, at least temporarily, analysts say. Both claim Israel as their ultimate enemy, and would be disposed to send troops to Syria and Jordan respectively. The well-utilized Aqaba-Baghdad logistical route which supports Iraq's current war effort could be quickly reversed to support an Iraqi troop movement into Jordan. Given the fickle nature of Mideastern alliances, even a currently friendly Iraqi military presence could ultimately present Jordan's King Hussein with an internal security threat.
Arab states in the Persian Gulf, feeling threatened by Iran's recent offensives, would be relieved at a halt to the Iran-Iraq war. And should uninterrupted petroleum shipments resume from Iran and Iraq, downward pressures on world oil prices would be reinforced.
Preoccupied by a war with Israel, Syria's influence in Lebanon would probably wane as it concentrated on Israel, causing Lebanon's warring factions to enter a new phase of internecine warfare.
Israel is frequently reported as possessing a clandestine nuclear weapons capability, while Syria has none. But most experts believe Jerusalem would use such weapons only should the state's existence be in jeopardy.
Egypt's ties with Israel may not endure a new Israeli-Syrian war, particularly given Egypt's large fundamentalist movement and economic weakness. United States economic presssure could possibly force postponement of an outright break, but not silence the Arab nationalist instincts and pressures of Egypt's restless populace.
The US and Soviets would be faced with a massive and costly resupply effort to their respective clients. Between 1979 and 1983, Syria already had received $9.2 billion in arms, mostly tanks, from Moscow. The same period saw some $3.6 billion in arms transferred to Israel from the US. Neither Syria nor Israel are in a position to pay for such supplies. The superpowers would be called upon to foot most of the bill, despite budget constraints in both countries. It is also possible that a Soviet combat military presence would be deployed in Syria -- depending on political developments in that country.
Most of the above factors portend a more dangerous region. US interests would again suffer, probably more than in the wake of previous Arab-Israeli wars. The factors that foster terrorism would be heightened. And elements in the Middle East disposed to favorable relations with the West would be further weakened.