Syrians and Israelis glare across the Golan Heights
There is an eerie calm on this side of the rugged volcanic plateau that is now at the center of world attention. It is as if the Syrian forces stationed there are unaware of the diplomatic stink over Israel's formal annexation of the strip of land called the Golan Heights - and the Syrians' subsequant military alert.
For all the war of words out of this and other Arab capitals, not a single truck, tank, or gun has been added to the Syrian contingent deployed in Syria's southernmost province, according to United Nations forces that provide a buffer zone or ''area of disengagement'' between Syria and Israel under terms of a 1974 treaty.
In fact, Syria is under the limit, at only about 60 percent of the strength permitted by the agreement. It is this fact that has led diplomats, UN monitors, and outside observers here to conclude that the Syrians do not intend to respond militarily to the annexation - despite a pledge Dec. 17 by the Syrian minister of information, Ahmad Iskandar.
''When war is imposed upon us, we shall defend ourselves with courage and without hesitation. In such, Syrian mothers will not be the only ones to cry,'' the information minister said.
Mr. Iskandar escalated the diplomatic campaign by calling for an emergency session of Arab foreign ministers to discuss ''collective action.''
For now, the Syrians appear to be expressing their anger through diplomatic channels and outraged editorials, including one Dec. 17 that called Israel's Prime Minister Begin ''a disciple of Hitler'' and compared the annexation with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Perhaps ironically, the Israelis are also under strength, according to UN officers, despite reports of a buildup Dec. 14 and 15. ''The Israelis have redeployed mechanized units that they had thinned out in August and September,'' one official monitor explained. ''They had been at 20 percent capacity, they are now back to about 85 percent.''
Those limits set by the disengagement agreement are: 6,000 troops, 75 tanks, and 36 short-range artillery pieces within the first six miles; 450 tanks and 162 longer-range guns in the next 12 miles; and anything except missiles for 15 miles beyond that.
Man for man and gun for gun, military analysts here claim the Syrians do have the power to strike effectively. But they say problems with efficiency, junior leadership, and particularly tactics would make it unlikely that the Syrians could hold out against an Israeli counteroffensive.
Soviet trainers have modeled their instruction of Syrian troops on high-intensity tactics used in wars on central fronts. Such tactics generally are not usable against the Israeli strategy, a scattered front of small units.
Envoys in Damascus, the oldest capital in the world, also evaluated other possible Syrian options that are in keeping with the style of strong man President Hafez Assad:
* A war of attrition, meaning terrorist attacks on or artillery barrages at the Golan's Jewish settlements. This type of warfare seems unlikely, they say, because Assad realizes the Israelis would not tolerate it for long. Only once in the past seven years have the Syrians dared to attack a settlement (Ramat Magshimimin 1974), killing several civilians.
* Adding missiles to batteries already in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, on the Syrian border, creating a form of nonaggressive provocation. The Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles have been a constant irritation to the Israelis, who have pledged to destroy them if they are not removed.
Negotiations by US special envoy Philip Habib earlier this month with both the Syrians and Israelis failed to make any headway in defusing a situation that threatens to ignite hostilities in Lebanon again.
Although this is considered a more possible alternative, it may not amount to anything in the end. So far the Syrians have not fired the missiles, deployed in the Bekaa last April. In fact they almost seem to be there just to anger the Israelis. In a game of cat and mouse, the Syrians regularly rotate them to different locations.
* Getting rid of the UN Disengagement Observers Force (UNDOF) by setting terms for the renewal of its mandate next May that would make it impossible for the US and Israel to agree.
Even pro-American diplomats labeled this a ''smart option,'' since it would serve to further polarize the situation and indicate US inability or unwillingness to deal with the Middle East situation.
As a diplomatic effort, it would continue to enhance the gains the Syrians have made by going first through political channels, rather than reacting militarily.
* Breaking the fragile cease-fire negotiated by Habib last July between the Palestinians and Israelis in southern Lebanon. As a traditional microcosm of almost every aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Lebanon is the most feasible place for hostilities triggered by the annexation, Western envoys believe.
Tension is already at near breaking point, with both the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat recently charging that the other side is building up its troops and equipment in the south in preparation for an assault.