Officials here are pondering why Syria precipitated an aerial dog-fight yesterday in which Israel Air Force jets downed two Syrian MIG-23s. Some sources have suggested this was President Hafez Assad’s way of calling the attention of the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the Middle East tensions while their leaders are engaged in the Geneva summit conference.
According to that explanation, Assad wants to remind President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Syria’s role in resolving the Mideast conflict cannot be ignored when the issue is discussed at the summit, as it was expected to be today. Recent U.S. diplomacy in the region has focussed almost exclusively on Jordan and Israel.
Other officials, skeptical of the summit explanation, attribute more limited motivations to the Syrians. They maintain that Damascus wanted to disturb the relative quiet and stability Israel has enjoyed along its northern borders since withdrawing from Lebanon eight months ago and to create new strains in any developing Israeli-Jordanian dialogue.
These officials say that by forcing an air battle with Israel, Syria wanted to put King Hussein of Jordan into what one Arab affairs expert called a predicament of loyalty. They also wanted to test the loyalty of anti-Israel forces in south Lebanon, particularly the Shiite militia, Amal.
SYRIA PROVOKED THE INCIDENT
There is no doubt, according to the official Israeli accounts, that the Syrians provoked the incident. Israel flies reconnaissance missions over Lebanon several times a week as matter of routine.
Syrian planes have made threatening moves in the past but yesterday’s incident over the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon was the first time they pressed their challenge to a point where Israeli fighters, flying cover for the reconnaissance planes, were ordered to open fire on the Syrians.
It was a long-range engagement. Air Force Commander Gen. Amos Lapidot noted that modern, supersonic jets equipped with air-to-air missiles of some 20 kilometers range do not even see their targets except on their radar screens.
In the course of yesterday’s clash, the Israeli jets entered Syrian air space for a short distance. The Syrian Ml Gs crashed inside Lebanon, near Nabek, about 80 kilometers north of Damascus. Reports yesterday said they had crashed in Syria.
The incident has placed a question mark over the tacit understanding between Israel and Syria to avoid clashed in Lebanon. Officials here declined to comment on suggestions that Israel could have avoided the incident before it reached the shooting stage.
They noted, however, that the Air Force’s response made it clear to the Syrians that they will not be allowed to threaten Israel’s right to patrol the skies over Lebanon.
Reports from Beirut said Israeli jets flew over Beirut and the Bekaa Valley again today, this time at low level creating sonic booms to call attention to their presence.
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