The Lebanese-Israeli border, the traditional venue for Syria to settle scores with its arch enemy, was bracing yesterday for a possible flare-up of violence after Israeli jets bombed a Palestinian camp in Syria.
"The aggression against Syria is considered a defiance of international conventions and law and is a dangerous escalation," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa said in a statement. He called for the UN Security Council to meet to "deter the Israeli government from taking more provocative action."
The airstrike, the first by Israel against targets this deep into Syria since the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, signals an escalation in the long-simmering conflict between the two countries.
Mohammed Shukri, a professor of international law at Damascus University, says the air raid was an "act of war."
"I hope my government will exercise some kind of restraint; otherwise it might lead to a conflict between us and them," he says in a telephone interview from Damascus. "And that would not be good for anyone."
But Professor Shukri adds: "If they continue this policy of unjustified aggression, Israel will have to face the consequences. Syria is not in a mood of aggression but it will not sit quietly."
Syria said the Ein Saheb Camp is home to Palestinian refugees and not a facility to train Islamic Jihad militants, as claimed by Israel. Security sources in Damascus said that the long-established camp is run by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and although it is used by other groups, there were no Islamic Jihad members present at the time of the raid.
In recent months, the United States has intensified pressure on Syria to cease its support for radical Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Although the Damascus offices of the Palestinian groups have closed, US officials believe they are still active in Syria. "Hamas can exist independently of Syrian support, but Islamic Jihad is wholly dependent on Syrian backing," says a Western security source. "Islamic Jihad couldn't function without Damascus as a base. Hizbullah trains their fighters and they receive funds from Iran."
Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut who served 24 years with a United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, argues that Israel is running out of options in trying to thwart Palestinian suicide bombers.
"Israel has tried everything else from closures, assassinations, house demolitions. Now they are hoping the Syrians will pressure the Palestinian groups."
He adds: "I doubt that Syria is running a proxy war against Israel through the Palestinians. But the Syrians are a point of pressure against the Palestinians. The attack is a way of getting the Syrians to do what the Israelis cannot do themselves."
Many analysts say that, for Syria, withdrawing support for groups like Islamic Jihad and Lebanon's Hizbullah organization is a red line it will not cross. But its retaliatory options, beyond diplomatic measures, are limited. That leaves analysts divided on whether Syria retaliate with force.
"I don't think Syria will react militarily," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "But if the Israelis repeat the attack, I think Syria will send a message along the Lebanon-Israel border using one of its proxy forces, Hizbullah or another group."
But Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst, argues that Syria has no choice but to respond militarily.
"The political cost to Syria would be high if they didn't retaliate," Mr. Young says. "I don't think the Syrians can really afford not to react."
Although the Israelis and Syrians clashed in Lebanon during the 1982 Israeli invasion, the bulk of fighting between the two countries has been through Lebanese and Palestinian proxies. Lebanese Hizbullah guerrillas fought an 18-year war of resistance against Israeli troops occupying south Lebanon, a conflict that was encouraged and supported by Syria. Damascus sees Hizbullah as a useful means of pressuring Israel into making concessions on the future of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau captured by Israeli forces in 1967.