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Alleged Israeli flyover of Syria raising questions

JERUSALEM - Syria's announcement that it opened fire on Israeli aircraft invading its airspace has raised the question of why Israel would want to heighten tensions just days after stating that war with its enemy to the north was unlikely.

Israel refuses to comment on Syria's assertion. But the Jewish state would have reason to fly over northern Syria: to collect information about long-range missiles pointed at Israel, to test Syrian air defense, or to try out a possible air route to its archenemy Iran.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency on Thursday quoted a military official as saying that Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over northern Syria earlier in the day, then "dropped munitions" onto deserted areas after being shot at by Syria's air defenses.

And a Syrian government newspaper warned yesterday that the country "possesses the means to respond . . . so that it will deter Israel against proceeding with such unpredictable adventures."

The allegation was the latest episode in tensions between the decades-old enemies.

Frictions between the two countries had abated slightly in recent weeks with announcements by Israeli and Syrian leaders that they were not interested in hostilities. Last month, Israel's army said it had determined that war with Syria is unlikely after Syria began rotating forces out of the contested Golan Heights.

But Israel sees Syria as one of its greatest foes, and watches it closely. Israel is wary of Syria's warming ties with Iran and its support for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Israel's air force may have been testing an air path to Iran, in case it decides to carry out an attack against that country's nuclear facilities, analysts said.

The corridor of northern Syria where the aircraft allegedly flew over is the closest straight line from the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel has easy access, to Iran. The area is separated from Iran only by Iraqi Kurdistan, a region whose rulers would almost surely allow either Israel or the United States to fly over.

Such a route is far from the safest, as Israel could also reach Iran through the friendly airspace of Turkey or Jordan, if they agreed. Even so, analysts said Israel would want to consider all options.

Israel says it prefers to let the international community confront Iran's nuclear ambitions, but a lone Israeli attack is not out of the question. The country sees Iran, whose president has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction, as an existential threat. Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy, not weapons.

"Of course Israel wants to let the Americans do that," said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "But if we are left alone, the Israeli army is preparing to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat - if the political level allows it to - and this could have been a part of that."

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