Already beset by internal unrest, Syria appears to be doing its best to avoid a confrontation with Israel over plans to redeploy Syrian peacekeeping troops in Lebanon.
A warning by Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman that his country would respond decisively to any Soviet-inspired Syrian provocation so far has elicited no official response here. According to diplomats, the Syrian government of President Hafez Assad has refrained from placing its armed forces on alert as did Israel to back up its warning. No unusual troop movements have been noticed here.
Arousing more concern in the state-controlled Syrian press was an assassination attempt Friday against a progovernment Moslem clergyman at a mosque in central Damascus. It followed a successful assassination of a cleric a week earlier. The government has blamed both on the outlawed Moslem Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group that apparently is in the forefront of opposition to Assad's government.
As has often been the case in recent years, the latest face-off between Israel and Syria seems to reflect move their deep-seated mutual distrust than any real danger of a military offensive by one against the other.
An ironic novelty this time, however, is that the moves leading each side to this juncture evidently stem from a rare confluence of views, according to diplomats.
Both Syria and Israel, for their own reasons, are said to want to refocus on the Middle East some of the international attention that has been lavished of late on the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
For the Syrians, the obsession with Afghanistan diverts attention from what Damascus regards as a much more critical problem: the failure of the U.S.-Egyptian-Israeli peace process to solve the Palestianian issue and the continued Israeli occupation of Arab land.
For the Israelis, some diplomats feel, Washington's preoccupation with Afghanistan means a diversion of strategic concerns to the Arab oil states along the Persian Gulf. One result of this has been American efforts to secure base agreements with such Moslem countries as Oman. Somalia and Saudi Arabia.
The Israelis were seen here as trying to regain the spotlight last month when both Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Israeli commander in the north warned that Syria was preparing for an attack and some troops were put on alert.
The Syrians apparently interpreted this as an Israeli attempt to mask plans for an attack of their own. Damascus cited the perceived threat among reasons for the redeployment two weeks ago of about 2,000 Syrian troops from southern Lebanon's Mediterranean coast between Beirut and Zahrani to new positions near Syria in the Bekaa Valley.
The new positions are in a corridor that might be used in an Israeli attack on Syria, and vice versa.
A Syrian threat to withdraw another 5,000 of its peacekeeping troops from Beirut, risking a renewal of clashes among the factions that fought in the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war, was also partly attributed to fears of an Israeli attack.
The Syrian motives and intentions in threatening to pull their Beirut troops back to Bekas appear to be more complex, however.
A major purpose, one diplomat said, is to administer "shock treatment" to both the Lebanese government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, both of which have become a bit too unruly for Syrian taste lately. Both could feel the consequences of a Syrian withdrawal.
Another consideration for Syria is that its troops stationed in the Lebanese capital have been softened and somewhat demoralized by tedious checkpoint and police duties. Damascus is said to worry about the corrupting influences in Beirut, as officers and soldiers succumb to the temptation to steal cars and otherwise profit from their assignments.
Although there have been signs of a thinning out of Syrian troops in Beirut -- and a more visible use of the Syrian-controlled Palestine Liberation Army -- Damascus has not made good its threat to withdraw from the Lebanese capital.
Officially, the delay has come in response to pleas by the Lebanese government and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. But some observers believe the Syrians can accomplish their shock treatment without actually pulling out.
On the domestic front assassinations and terrorist attacks by opposition groups appear to be a more immediate threat to the government than war with Israel.
In the latest incident, a local preacher, Sheik Salah Oukla, was slightly wounded by a gunman in a Damascus mosque after he delivered a progovernment sermon.
The attack resembled one a week earlier in which a clergyman was assassinated as he was leading prayers in a mosque in the northern city of Aleppo.
Aleppo was the scene of an attack last month in which gunmen opened fire on a busload of Soviet civilian technicians assigned to work on joint projects with Syria. At least one Soviet technician was reported killed and several wounded.
Earlier, in the town of Hama, two Soviet military advisers were assassinated. The Soviet Union has an estimated 2,000 military advisers and 500 civilian technicians in Syria.
One of the main sources of the religious discontent in the country has been the domination by the minority Alawite Moslem sect, which makes up only about 8 percent of the 8.3 million population but accounts for roughly 30 percent of Syria's 200,000-man Army. A majority of Syrians belong to the Sunni Moslem sect.