Eyeing Syria, Israel hesitant to leave aeries atop Golan

Barak's goal in talks is to bolster security against possible attack

January 09, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOUNT HERMON, Golan Heights -- They say that on a clear day, with the help of binoculars, you can see Damascus from this perch, which Israel occupies overlooking the Golan Heights.

And with the help of a lot more expensive gadgetry, Israelis not only can see Syria's capital, but glean movements that could bring a Middle East war.

As the second round of Israeli-Syrian peace talks grinds along in Shepherdstown, W.Va., Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak won't allow any issue to take precedence over future security arrangements like the ones at Mount Hermon.

The list of these arrangements is complicated, but Israel's goal is to keep Syria from gaining an incentive to launch a surprise attack, as it last did in 1973.

"Early warning stations" like the one on Mount Hermon -- capable of looking not only into Syria but also into its client state, Lebanon -- hold enormous strategic value for Israel. And Israel has frequently stressed that if its forces withdraw from the Golan, they need to keep the intelligence edge that such outposts provide. Their preference is to keep control of at least one of the stations themselves.

Yesterday, the talks under way in Shepherdstown scarcely seemed to register on the slopes of this 9,230-foot-high peak. Two days after the first heavy snowfall in two years, Mount Hermon was alive with hundreds of Israelis relishing winter at this semitropical country's only ski resort.

But even at the level of the lift line, signs abound that this is no mere playground.

The jammed parking lot contained as many brawny military jeeps as tour buses, and soldiers in olive-drab uniforms seemed as ubiquitous as skiers in brightly colored parkas.

One road past the resort leads to a sign that welcomes visitors to Arar Base, a collection of single-story huts amid a crisscrossing of wires. But a cheerful guard quickly signals that the welcome doesn't extend to all visitors. Another road leads to another base with a similar sign and guard.

`The odd golf ball'

What can you see closer to the top?

"Everything you'd expect to see -- you know, a cloud of aerials, one or two concrete buildings, probably the odd golf ball," said Andrew Duncan, former editor of the annual strategic assessment published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He caught a glimpse from the top of a chairlift several months ago.

A "golf ball," he said, is a big, dimpled, white circular screen with radar antennas. Although he hasn't scaled the mountain's secret heights, he assumes they also contain directional monitoring devices that can pinpoint sites for viewing or eavesdropping, powerful telescopes and long-range television cameras capable of differentiating tanks at 30 miles.

This is just one of the extensively outfitted posts on the Golan, he said.

"There's another warning station called Har Avital with an enormous amount of gadgetry on it," he said. But because of its location, Mount Hermon is probably the most important.

"Not only do you look towards Damascus in one direction, but you look deep into Lebanon on the other side," he said. From there, Israel is able to monitor Syrian conversations and probably cellular-phone calls in Damascus, he said.

The value of such a vantage is that it can give Israel indications of a Syrian attack well before plans are translated into visible actions. With Syrian forces massed outside Damascus, less than 40 miles away, timely warning is essential.

"There is no adequate substitute" for an on-the-ground early warning station, the dean of Israel's defense writers, Ze'ev Schiff, wrote in a 1993 study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

This view was reinforced in 1995 by Israel's then-chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin Shahak, during a round of Israeli-Syrian negotiations under the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

According to an account by Itamar Rabinovich, Israel's ambassador to Washington at the time, Shahak discounted the idea that airborne intelligence devices could match the kind of information gathered by such on-the-ground listening posts.

"Shahak analyzed the sequence that produced a threat," Rabinovich wrote. "First comes an idea. It is then converted into secret planning, which gives birth to commands, at which point activities begin to take place on the ground. Such activities, said Shahak, can be picked up from the air, but this represented an advanced stage of preparation and a warning obtained at that stage might be too late."

No guarantees

But not even Mount Hermon's array of electronic devices can provide a guarantee against a surprise attack by Syria, as Israel discovered in 1973.

"On the eve of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence thought it had a clear idea of what was taking place in Syria. Though Israel knew a great deal, it neither understood Syrian intentions nor President [Hafez el] Assad's decision to join Egypt in war against Israel," Schiff wrote. Syrian forces moved deep into the Golan Heights before Israel regrouped and won it back.

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