Israel is "fully prepared" for the possibility of a conflict in the North, defense officials said late Thursday, after Syria alleged it had fired on a pre-dawn IAF flight over the coastal city of Latakia.
The IDF officially refused to comment on reports from Syria that its air defenses fired on a formation of IAF warplanes that entered Syrian airspace from the Mediterranean.
In addition, fears mounted that Hizbullah would use the escalating tensions along the Golan Heights as an excuse to initiate its own conflict with Israel.
Despite these fears, troops and tanks were not massing in the North, and the top defense brass carried on with their regular schedules, attempting to broadcast an air of "business as usual." The IDF's Northern Command released a statement reassuring northern residents that there was "no cause for concern."
Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara, speaking in Italy, said his country was not interested in being drawn into a war with Israel.
Syrian officials reported Thursday afternoon that at around 1 a.m., four or five IAF aircraft broke the sound barrier and dropped fuel tanks over deserted areas in northern Syria, along its border with Turkey. Witnesses said the incident occurred in the Abyad area.
A Syrian military spokesman said that Syrian air defenses then opened fire on the IAF aircraft.
"The Israeli enemy aircraft infiltrated the Arab Syrian territory through the northern border, coming from the Mediterranean, heading toward the eastern region, breaking the sound barrier," the spokesman said. "Air defense units confronted them and forced them to leave. We warn the Israeli enemy government against this flagrant aggressive act, and retain the right to respond in an appropriate way."
The incident came as Syria was pursuing an unprecedented arms buildup and amid growing fears of an impending war. Since the Second Lebanon War, Military Intelligence has warned that while Syria is not really interested in an armed conflict with Israel, a lack of communication between the two countries could cause a war to erupt if a diplomatic resolution were not reached beforehand.
Both the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry maintained a complete blackout on any information relating to the incident. Officials declined to answer queries either on or off the record, and would only repeat the IDF Spokesman's Office response on the matter that it was "not accustomed to responding to such reports."
Likud MK Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that the IDF response reflected the reality that Israel had no interest in getting into a confrontation with Syria.
In a Channel 2 interview, Hanegbi said Israel's interest was clear: "To reduce the tension and calm the situation."
Adding to the concern in Israel was an announcement by Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal, who said Syria would "find the way" to respond to the Israeli aerial infiltration.
Bilal said the government was "seriously studying the nature of the response," but refused to indicate in an interview with Al-Jazeera whether the reaction would be on the military or diplomatic level. He would not give any more details about the incident, but said it proved Israel's policies were based on hostility.
"Israel, in fact, does not want peace. It cannot survive without aggression, treachery and military messages," he said.
Counterterrorism expert Boaz Ganor said that if Thursday's flyover did occur, it was possible that Israel was "collecting intelligence on long-range missiles" deployed by Syria in the North.
Imad Fawzi Shoaibi, a Syrian political analyst, speculated that Israel may have been probing Syria's new air defense systems, provided by Russia, at a time when tension was running high between the two countries.
Israel has acknowledged making routine flights over Lebanon, but it is unclear how often the IAF flies over Syria, if at all. At the beginning of the Second Lebanon War last summer, warplanes buzzed the palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad in what analysts called a warning to Damascus. In June of the same year, they also flew over Assad's summer home in Latakia, near the border with Turkey, after Hamas terrorists abducted Cpl. Gilad Schalit in Gaza.
AP contributed to the report.
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