Israel assures Syria it doesn't seek war

IAF scrambling jets more often, but border tension is ascribed to Syrian nervousness.

IDF Helicopter 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF Helicopter 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As the IDF maintains its high level of alert along the northern border, defense officials revealed on Thursday that in recent weeks - due to the escalation in tensions with Damascus - the air force has increased the number of times it has had to scramble jets to the border, fearing an infiltration by a Syrian aircraft. At the same time, however, intelligence officials attributed Syrian military movements near the border more to nervousness than a likelihood of conflict. And defense officials said Israel had passed a message to the Syrian military via UN forces in Syria that Israel has no offensive intentions. Nonetheless, the message said, it would respond forcefully if attacked. According to a senior defense official, the IAF has slightly increased the number of times it scrambled its jets to the Syrian border, with planes being sent almost every day. "It's not a significant increase, but whenever there is a tense period, there is an increase," the official told The Jerusalem Post, explaining that due to Israel's small size, the IAF was suspicious of military aircraft identified flying close to, and in the direction of, the border. Defense officials said Thursday that Israel would maintain a high level of alert along the border due to an increase in tensions marked Wednesday by a report in the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, which said Syria had concentrated troops and tanks along the Lebanese border and summoned reserve forces in preparation for a possible Israeli attack. Intelligence officials said Thursday that the Syrian maneuvers were most probably being made out of fear over the IDF's upcoming intensive spring training program, due to begin on the Golan Heights after Pessah. Officials said that Israel was sending messages to Syria through different diplomatic channels that it was not interested in a conflict. "They are nervous ahead of our training and that's why they're making adjustments," one official said. The official added that Syrian military movements were mainly of a defensive nature due to concerns in Damascus that Israel would attack Syria if it were provoked by Hizbullah, retaliating for February's assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. But Vice Premier Haim Ramon said on Thursday that "Israel has no intention of attacking Syria." Speaking to Israel Radio, Ramon said that "the anxiety of the last few days is surprising and has no basis." "While the government is always looking to negotiate with Syria," Ramon said, "unfortunately, Syria is stuck deep in the evil axis of connections with Hizbullah." Earlier, during a visit to a high school in Arad, President Shimon Peres also declared that "We have no intention of attacking Syria - Israel is not looking to go to war, and I hear that Syria says the same." Peres said he believed the sense that war was imminent in the North was "just a sense" and would pass. Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry director-general Aharon Abramovich was in Turkey Thursday for meetings on the strategic relations between the two countries. In talks with his Turkish counterpart and other senior officials in Ankara, Abramovich discussed the nuclearization of Iran, the strengthening of Hizbullah and the situation in the Gaza Strip. Foreign Ministry officials were unaware whether the security situation with Syria had been discussed in the meetings or whether Abramovich asked the Turks to relay messages in Damascus. Turkish officials have been the go-between in the past for messages sent by Israel to Syria. The US State Department has refrained from addressing the nature of Syria's activities along the border. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said Thursday he had "no independent confirmation" of a Syrian reserves call-up or special maneuvers along the border. He did say, "If the question is, do we think that military action is a viable response to any political differences, the answer is obviously no." Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.