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Syrian Military Movements near Israeli Border Prompt Concerns

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post
JERUSALEM

A series of Syrian troop movements along Israel's northern border, dismissed at first as insignificant or routine, has generated growing unease here amid the deepest diplomatic impasse since the two nations began peace talks in 1991.

The Syrian initiatives, which include stepped-up military exercises and repositioning of substantial combat units near the Israeli border, follow an exchange of veiled and not-so-veiled threats this month between the Jerusalem and Damascus governments.

No immediate risk of conflict is seen by Arab, Israeli or American analysts, and there has been no decisive shift in the balance of forces along the confrontation line on the Golan Heights.

But although divided on whether the Syrian moves are intended as self-defense or saber-rattling, experts in and out of government described them as the first significant manipulation of military forces since the two adversaries agreed to meet face to face at the Madrid Conference five years ago.

Israel and Syria have long fought a low-level proxy war in the Israeli-controlled portion of southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah guerrillas operating from Syrian-controlled territory battle Israeli troops and the Israeli-sponsored South Lebanon Army. Israeli and Syrian forces, however, have taken pains to avoid direct conflict.

Apart from marking a new low in their dialogue, the implied menace of the new deployments, together with the likelihood of countermeasures by Israel, carry a logic of their own that is worrisome to Israeli officials and foreign diplomats here.

Although they were cautious in their appraisals, several said they feared that the two sides could stumble into an escalation that neither intends.

Beneath the growing tension is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rejection of any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In recent contacts that were mediated by the United States, Netanyahu notified Syria that he does not feel bound by a set of nine informal understandings reached by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres at negotiations at the Wye Plantation in Maryland before Netanyahu defeated Peres in elections last May.

The major Syrian military movements involve units based in Lebanon, where at least 35,000 Syrian troops have controlled the bulk of the country since 1976.

Tuesday, according to officials with access to Israeli and foreign intelligence reports, Syria continued to shift the tanks and supporting vehicles of an armored brigade from positions east of Beirut - at Bhamdun and Dahr al Baydar, along the main highway linking the Lebanese and Syrian capitals - to the southern Bekaa Valley, close to Israel.

In a more serious development, two of the three regiments of the 14th Syrian Special Forces Division have been withdrawn from Lebanon to take up positions on the Syrian side of Mount Hermon. That peak, now home to an Israeli intelligence complex, is the highest and most strategic point on the Golan plateau.

Israeli military intelligence assessments are cautiously confident thus far that the Syrian moves are "largely defensive" in character, according to one official.