Syria still weighs retaliation for Israeli raid

Officials in Damascus say that another strike would be met with a Hizbullah-style counterattack.

It's been nearly a month since the predawn Israeli airstrike on northern Syria. And still no retaliation from Damascus.

However, President Bashar al-Assad, who claims Israeli jets hit an unmanned military facility in the Sept. 6 raid, told the BBC Monday that Syria is still considering the appropriate response. He said it wouldn't have to be "missile-for-missile," but could be political.

Officials and political analysts here say that in the event of another strike, Syria is preparing to respond using the guerrilla-style tactics of its Lebanese ally Hizbullah. They say Syria, no match for Israel's war machine, is instead adopting the tactics that helped the Lebanese Shiite militia emerge undefeated in its bout with Israel in last summer's war in Lebanon.

"If the Israeli side launches attacks, believe me we will be very harsh in our response," says Mohammad Habbash, a member of the Syrian parliament. "It will be a guerrilla war. There will be guerrilla warfare coming from Lebanon and Syria, and it will be very harsh."

Unconfirmed media reports say Syria has been training its soldiers to fight in the mountainous southern edges of the country, near its border with Israel, using unconventional tactics more in line with a militia than a standing army. A steady supply of rudimentary rockets, which can be transported and launched on short notice and with little manpower, much like those unfurled on Israel by Hizbullah during the 2006 war, are said by Syrian political analysts to be making their way to the south.

"This is hit-and-run war; you don't need a scud missile to do this. The basic philosophy here is defending the land," says a government adviser who, asking to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the issue, confirmed these reports.

The adviser says that, like Hizbullah, Syria would aim to inflict "civil-economic losses on Israel" with surprise rocket attacks, with the intention of using fear to bring Israeli life to a standstill in a potential conflict.

Officials here insist, however, that they prefer the diplomatic track to war. President Assad has on numerous occasions voiced his willingness to enter peace negotiations with Israel. But Syrian officials have also been suggesting recently that their patience is wearing thin, particularly with Israel's occupation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967.

Assad said in the BBC interview that Syria would not accept an invitation by the US to attend a November Middle East peace conference at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., unless the issue of the Golan Heights was on the table. "If they don't talk about Syrian-occupied territory, no, there's no way for Syria to go there."

Israel has in the past violated Syrian airspace, buzzing the presidential palace with warplanes several times and even taking out a suspected training camp for Palestinian militants near Damascus in 2003.

But last month's raid has generated much speculation. Some reports allege that Israel swooped down and destroyed a nascent nuclear weapons facility thought to be aided by North Korea, which is believed to have already supplied Syria with sophisticated technology for long-range missiles that can hit deep inside Israel. The Israelis have been tight-lipped about the September incident, neither confirming nor denying it.

The New York Times quoted anonymous US administration officials several days after the incident saying that there was concern North Korea was handing the remnants of its nuclear materials to Syria before it dismantled its atomic weapons program in a deal it recently struck with the US.

On top of this speculation, Jane's Defence Weekly wrote in a September article that a July explosion at a military installation in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo took the lives of dozens of Iranian weapons engineers while they were loading a warhead filled with mustard gas onto a ballistic missile. The Syrians, however, say the explosion occurred at a conventional arms depot.

Syria's state-run media has since been on the defensive, denying claims made in the international press and denouncing the Israeli raid. "People are very angry for what they see as a blatant Israeli violation of Syria," says Mahdi Dahlala, a former Syrian minister of information. "They want their government to do something."

Mr. Habbash, the parliamentarian, says Syria is more ready now to shore up its ties with Iran, its ally of nearly three decades, in the event of a conflict. "We expect Iran to help us against Israel and aggression, and Iran has the same expectations from us to help protect them."

Still, Syria's apparent readiness to employ guerrilla warfare tactics suggests that it believes that alliance may not be enough to protect the country. Instead, go-it-alone thinking is likely causing the country to rethink its defense strategy, perhaps even its nuclear weapons option, according to Charles Ferguson, a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US research institution.

"The overriding factor is Syria's sense of vulnerability," says Mr. Ferguson. "It lives in a very rough neighborhood and does not have reliable allies to come to its defense. So, from the realist perspective, it would make sense for Syria to at least consider a possible nuclear weapons program."

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