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Israeli Defense Minister Sees New Threat in Syria

The new head of Israel's defense forces is warning that closer ties between Syria and Iraq pose a new danger to Israel. General Moshe Ya'alon, who assumed control of Israel's army last week, says Syria has become more extreme since President Basher Assad took over from his father two years ago, and there is a growing possibility of a Syrian confrontation with Israel.

General Ya'alon made his comments in an address Sunday to senior officers at the Jaffee Strategic Research Center in Tel Aviv, and the comments have received wide attention in the Israeli press.

His warnings coincide with a report in Israel that Syria, the current head of the U.N. Security Council, is violating the U.N. arms embargo by delivering weapons and other military equipment to Iraq. The report, by Ze'ev Schiff, one of Israel's leading commentators on military affairs, says the material is shipped to Syrian ports and then delivered by truck and rail to Iraq.

Writing in the Ha'aretz newspaper, Mr. Schiff says many of the military supplies have been coming from countries in eastern Europe. The equipment is said to include Russian-made jet engines, refurbished Russian tank engines and Czech anti-aircraft cannon.

Mr. Schiff says the new relationship between Syria and Iraq constitutes "a significant change in the region." Mr. Assad's father, Hafez, who ruled Syria for many years, was opposed to Saddam, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

In his speech, General Ya'alon told senior Israeli officers that he is concerned that the direction being taken by President Bashar Assad could bring about a major conflict along Israel's northern border.

He says Hezbollah guerrilla fighters in southern Lebanon, by attacking Israeli settlements in the Galilee region, might spark such a conflict. General Ya'alon suggested Syria would be ultimately to blame for the conflict because it is the main power broker in Lebanon and can restrain Hezbollah, if it wished.