Syria Accuses Israel of Escalation After Strike On Radar Station

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Syria and Lebanon Monday accused Israel of escalating tensions in the region by attacking a Syrian military target in Lebanon, killing at least one Syrian officer and wounding four others.

Israeli analysts said the attack was intended to send a strong message to Damascus to rein in Hizballah, the Islamist terrorist organization active along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

However, the analysts said they do not believe the situation will escalate into a full-scale confrontation or that Syria will launch a retaliatory attack.

Israel considers the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizballah to be acting as Syria's proxy in carrying out cross-border attacks from Lebanese soil. Syria has some 35,000 troops in Lebanon and effectively controls the government in Beirut.

Israel's strike on a Syrian radar station marked the first time that Israel made good on threats by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak - made after Israeli forces withdrew from southern Lebanon last year - to strike at those Israel believes to be behind Hizballah attacks. It was also the first time in five years that Israel had struck a Syrian target.

Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was quoted as telling cabinet ministers that the air strike sent a message that the rules of the game had changed - every attack on Israel would exact a price.

The operation was carried out after an Israeli soldier, St.-Sgt. Elad Litvak, was killed over the weekend in a Hizballah attack.

Dr. Yossi Olmert, an expert on Syria and Lebanon, said Monday he hoped the raid was indication that Israeli policy had changed, and that the action would force Syria to re-valuate the situation.

"[The Syrians] never paid any price for what they did with Hizballah," Olmert said, referring to years of guerrilla warfare waged by Hizballah against Israeli troops in southern Lebanon, and against Israeli communities near the border.

Maj. Gen. Avraham Rotem, researcher of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, characterized the attack as a continuation of Israel's new policy of responding to terror attacks.

This was a signal for Damascus and Beirut to reject Hizballah, he said. It struck a "very precious" target for the Syrians, and sent the message that no one has immunity from retaliation.

More than 12 hours after the attack, Damascus's first response came from an official who told a news service Syria "reserves the right to defend itself against all aggression."

The unnamed official blamed Israel for what it called a dangerous escalation in the region.

Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri condemned the attack as "a grave aggression on Lebanon and Syria." He also complained about the attack to the U.S. Ambassador in Beirut.

The Palestinian Authority also condemned the attack and warned of a deterioration into a regional confrontation. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to PA Chairman Yasser Arafat, called on the U.S. and other countries to stop Israel's "aggression" against Palestinians, Syrians and the Lebanese.

Olmert attributed to the tardy response from Syrian official media to the raid to the fact that Damascus does not want a war with Israel.

For his part, Rotem said he did not believe Syria was in a position to launch a "very big or serious operation." The strike may encourage Syria to use its "strong and important leverage" on Hizballah to tone down its activity, he added.

A statement from the prime minister's office said Israel wanted to maintain "neighborly relations with its neighbor." Israel repeated its call for the government of Lebanon to deploy its troops right down to its international border with Israel.

Israel withdrew forces from a southern Lebanon buffer zone last year in line with U.N. resolutions, but Lebanon failed to send its army to fill the vacuum, allowing Hizballah to operate freely there.

The Lebanese could send troops to the south, Olmert said, but do not do so because of Syrian pressure.

According to Rotem, Beirut is angry about Hizballah's actions, which are endangering the government's drive to get international financial support to ease the country's $25 billion debt and rebuild the nation, shattered from 15 years of civil war.

The U.S. has already withheld the transfer of $20 million in pledged economic aid to Lebanon until Beirut deploys its troops in the south.

If Syria would allow it, Beirut would deploy its forces immediately, Rotem said, but Syria has long used Hizballah to carry out its battle against Israel.

A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv confirmed that senior Israeli officials had notified senior American officials after Monday's strike.