ISRAEL may have taken the war of words between the US and Damascus as a green light for its attack on Syrian soil, analysts said yesterday.
Israeli officials described yesterday’s air raid, barely ten miles outside the Syrian capital, as a warning shot meant to end Syrian support for terrorists, fired with "no intention of escalation".
Washington, meanwhile, has repeatedly blamed Syria for allowing "Arabs" and "foreigners" to cross its border to attack American troops, hinting at the possible threat of sanctions.
At the same time, it has joined Israel in demanding that Syria end its backing for Palestinian militants.
The US occupation of Iraq has left Israel’s old enemy surrounded by allies of the US. The cross-border pipeline supplying cheap Iraqi oil has been turned off, adding to the economic pressure on Syria’s president, Bashar Assad.
In the days of the Cold War, Washington would have been deeply cautious of any attack upon a long-time Soviet ally. But the chief legacy of those days has been to leave the Syrian military with obsolete and aging Soviet weaponry.
"One of the first questions is, did the US give any sort of green light?" said David Lesch, a leading analyst of US-Syrian relations. "US attitudes towards Syria since the war may have created a sense in Israel that this is something they can get away with, in tune with US policy."
The Israeli air strike was launched after a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad killed 19 people in a restaurant in the northern port city of Haifa on Saturday.
Israel’s military said it had targeted a base near Damascus used by militant groups. With Islamic Jihad claiming the area was empty, and Syrian security keeping reporters at bay, there was little early indication of damage or loss of life, if any.
By targeting Syria, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon may, for now, rescind its threat to "remove" Yasser Arafat.
That policy - embraced after the last suicide bombing on Israeli soil - brought warnings from around the world against directly targeting the Palestinians’ elected president. While some members of Mr Sharon’s cabinet called for the policy to be acted on, Mr Arafat seemed to have won a breathing space.
"Syria is easier to get at and can’t do anything back," said Mr Lesch, a professor of Middle East History at Texas’ Trinity University. "There will be a lot of vitriolic verbiage but they cannot do anything. It portrays, from the Sharon administration to the Israeli public, that they are doing something in reaction to the suicide bomber."
"The significance of the operation is more in terms of its symbolic message to the Syrians and the terror organisations," added Eran Lerman, a retired senior Israeli military intelligence officer. "It simply says that nobody is immune."
The strike, at Ein Saheb, nine miles north-west of Damascus, took place on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the 1973 Middle East war. "The Syrian military is under no illusion of what would happen if they try to [retaliate]," Mr Lerman said.
The first attack on the Syrian heartland in three decades, however, brings risks of its own. If Syria chooses to ignore Israel’s warning shot, it begs the question of what will follow.
The Arab world reacted with predictable outrage yesterday. The Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, condemned an "aggression against a brotherly state". The German chancellor, Gerhard Schrder, speaking at a joint Cairo news conference with him, described the action as "unacceptable".
Mr Schrder’s tough comments may renew the divides left by Iraq. Washington has repeatedly lashed out, verbally at least, at Syria. During the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, charged that Syria had supplied Iraqi forces with night-vision goggles.
In May, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, warned Mr Assad on a visit to Syria that he was in danger of falling "on the wrong side of history" unless he clamped down on Palestinian militants and closed the border to Arabs crossing into Iraq.
Late last month, Paul Bremer, the American civil administrator in Iraq, said 123 of the 248 non-Iraqi fighters held by US forces in Iraq were Syrian.
The hawkish US under-secretary of state, John Bolton, echoed that message, telling a Congress committee that Syria was still allowing "volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members".
He accused Syria of developing "one of the most advanced" chemical weapons programmes in the Arab world, and seeking technologies "that could be applied to a nuclear weapons programme".
Only last weekend, the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, added her own voice, saying said the US is not "working as constructively with the Syrians as we need to. There is much more that Syria needs to do, and that message is being communicated to them".
In the US yesterday, Israel’s supporters backed the action, with the outspoken former Congress leader, Newt Gingrich, among the first to endorse it.
Israel and Syria are still in an official state of war. Syria’s top foreign policy priority is to end Israel’s occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights.
It is this goal that may have encouraged Syria to see its backing of Palestinian militants, from Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as its only leverage against Israeli military might.
Israeli analysts said yesterday that Israel had calculated that a strike on Syria would not lead to a wider confrontation. "It was a clear message to the terrorists and to Syria that these activities must stop," said Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Mr Sharon.
This summer, in response to US pressure, Syria ordered Palestinian groups to close their offices. Mr Assad’s government, it was said, also urged them to accept a Palestinian ceasefire - which has since broken down.
In August, Israeli planes flew low over Assad’s holiday residence, in what was called a message to rein in Hezbollah.
With Syria calling for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council yesterday, it appeared to have accepted that any military reaction to Israel was out of the question.
"I think Syria will denounce this tremendously," said Mr Lesch. "Then I think this will fade away if no further action is taken - but it has added a new dose of tension."
BOMB THAT KILLED ARAB AND JEW, CHILD AND ADULT
IN ONE deadly instant, the suicide bombing of a Haifa restaurant destroyed families, crossed ethnic divides and horrified a country almost numb to the horrors of such attacks.
The bomber struck at lunchtime on the weekend as families sat down to eat together at a restaurant overlooking the sea. Four children, an Israeli military legend and two families were among the 19 killed in the bombing.
"Families wiped out," read the headline in the Israeli daily Maariv on Sunday. "Families murdered," the Yediot Ahronot daily wrote.
Bruriya Zer-Aviv, 49, went out for a Saturday lunch with her son B’tzalel, 30, his wife, Keren, 29, and her two grandchildren, four-year-old Liran and one-year-old Noya. They all died.
In Kibbutz Yagur, an agricultural village in northern Israel, shocked community members vowed to help the remnants of the Zer-Aviv family.
"We can never undo this tragedy but we will do all we can to help what is left of the family," Yagur resident Hillel Leviatan told Israel Radio.
Ze’ev Almog, 71, was the legendary former commander of the navy’s officer school in Haifa. His wife, Ruti, 70, his son Moshe, 43, and his grandson Tomer, nine, all died with him at the family lunch. His daughter Galit, daughter-in-law Orli and three other grandchildren were all wounded in the blast.
"To lose in one blow, so many family members, the closest family ... it is so strange to think of them in the past tense," Rotem Avrutski, Ze’ev Almog’s nephew, told the radio. The navy officer’s school was also mourning the death of Nir Regev, 25, the son of current school commander Eli Regev.
Maxim restaurant was a rare oasis of Jewish-Arab coexistence. For four decades the business has been owned by two families - one Arab, one Jewish. They worked together and died together. Four of the dead were Arab Israeli workers.