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.