Witnesses said they could barely hear the Israeli jets when they arrived over the Bekaa village of SÏarin Tahta yesterday. But they could scarcely have been surprised.
Ever since Hizbollah attacked an Israeli patrol on Friday in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa farms in the south originally part of Lebanon, controlled by Syria after 1947 but then captured by Israel in the 1967 war the Lebanese had been waiting for Israel's response. The result: two Syrian soldiers and a Lebanese conscript wounded and a Syrian anti-aircraft radar base destroyed in the Bekaa Valley.
So Israel's plan to strike Syrian rather than Lebanese targets in revenge for attacks at Shebaa has become policy. Hizbollah's killing of an Israeli soldier at Shebaa in April was met by an Israeli air raid that killed three Syrian soldiers at a radar base at Mdeirej, in the mountains above Beirut. The wounding of an Israeli soldier at Shebaa on Friday has been met by the latest air strike.
If Lebanese can sigh with relief, few others can. A direct confrontation between Syria and Israel would be about the most dangerous scenario in the Middle East. An Israeli cabinet statement said yesterday: "This criminal activity by Hizbollah takes place under the authorisation of Syria, whose army has a presence in Lebanon". Putting aside the "criminal" bit any Arab who militarily opposes Israel becomes a "terrorist" this was right. Syria does back Hizbollah and has 21,000 soldiers in Lebanon. In fact, the Bekaa the strategic valley that was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire is studded with Syrian military camps, tank fortifications and radar bases because it guards Syria's frontier west of Damascus.
A blossom of smoke and a black scar in a field 200 yards from the Rayak-Baalbek highway was all that was left of the old Soviet-made radar facility yesterday after the Israeli and US-made jets had gone. A Syrian guardsaid only one word in Arabic: Damarit ("Destroyed"). Journalists were not let near the base.
Since Israeli occupation troops retreated under fire from southern Lebanon in May last year, Syria's "card" to make Israel bleed in Lebanon as long as it occupied the Syrian Golan Heights has been considerably reduced in size. Shebaa Farms, a bleak, hilly terrain that even appears on UN maps as part of Syria rather than Lebanon, is the only field of fire Damascus has left to hit the Israelis. President Bachar Assad can afford a few air strikes, with a Syrian "martyr" only proving the country's readiness to suffer for the "sister" country, Lebanon.
But if an Israeli raid were to kill 30 Syrians, Mr Assad would have to respond. It is not difficult now that the Arabs have adopted Israel's tactic of retaliation as well as its rhetoric to see how risky this could become. Indeed, scarcely had the Israeli jets returned to their airbases yesterday than Hizbollah mortared an Israeli radar base on a cliff near Shebaa. The Israelis hit back with artillery fire.
Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hizbollah who was by chance at a rally near Sarin Tahta yesterday, warned that Israel was "playing with fire". But both sides have been doing that in Lebanon for 19 years.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd