by Jacques PintoThu Feb 22, 9:55 AM ET
A reported Syrian troop build-up near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has fuelled speculation in Israel about a future conflict, more than three decades after the two enemies last went to war.
Syrian armed forces appear to be moving closer to the armistice line as Damascus spearheads an unprecendented armaments drive, shrieked Israel's Haaretz newspaper from its front page Thursday.
"The Syrian armed forces are being strengthened in a way unprecedented in recent memory with the help of generous funding from Iran," wrote military affairs correspondent Zeev Schiff.
Brigadier General Yossi Beidatz, the head of military intelligence research, has also warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is preparing for conflict with Israel, possibly through Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel last year.
Haaretz said the main thrust of Syria's armaments drive was missiles and long-range rockets, with its navy being bolstered by an Iranian missile similar to one fired by Hezbollah, killing four Israeli sailors last summer.
Syria is also close to concluding a deal with Russia to procure thousands of advanced anti-tank missiles, of the sort Hezbollah used to such lethal effect against Israeli armour last year, Haaretz reported.
"It appears that the Syrians have moved forces closer to the border (armistice line) with Israel on the Golan Heights," wrote Schiff, noting similar movements prior to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
Three decades ago, a coordinated Egyptian and Syrian assault caught Israel totally off guard on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, triggering its deadliest conflict since independence in 1948.
Syria has test-fired ballistic missiles, such as a Scud-D surface-to-surface missile, which would put most of Israel within range, Haaretz reported.
Israel is still smarting from its deadly pounding by more than 4,000 Hezbollah rockets that killed some 40 civilians last summer.
But Defence Minister Amir Peretz was quoted by journalists as telling military officials to "avoid making unnecessary comments" on Syria and asking officers to steer clear of a "war of words" with Damascus.
"The situation in the field will be examined according to facts and the Israel Defence Force will prepare itself accordingly," he was quoted as saying.
One aide, Amos Gilad, said he saw no immediate danger of war but that Syrian weapons purchases highlighted the need for Israel to remain combat-ready.
"The fact that Syria is strengthening its military capabilities does not mean we're going to be attacked tomorrow but certainly we need to be prepared," Gilad told public radio.
"There is no danger of war. There is no deployment of forces indicating that Israel would be threatened by an offensive tomorrow."
A northern command source agreed that Syria had beefed up its troops along the armistice line as Israel did following the outbreak of war in Lebanon.
"Since the end of the war, tension has remained high on both sides and at a much higher level than it was before the war. There is much more Israeli and Syrian daily military presence along the border today," the official said.
But a source in the UN force in the Golan Heights charged with monitoring the armistice denied any Syrian troop build-up and lashed out an "alarmist Israeli media that repeatedly brings up the topic".
On Wednesday, Israel launched war games on the Golan Heights that Peretz flatly denied were connected to fears of a new conflict with Syria.
Damascus has repeatedly demanded the return of the Golan, a strategic plateau which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and unilaterally annexed in 1981. It is now home to more than 15,000 settlers.
Peace talks between Israel and Syria collapsed in 2000, in part because of disputes over the return of the territory.