Syria today denounced yesterday's aerial dogfight between Israeli and Syrian jets as a "premeditated provocation that heralds an aggressive military adventure" by Israel.
Syria still did not acknowledge the downing of two Syrian MiG23s in the incident.
The Syrian denunciation, carried in an angry article in the official daily Al Baath, the newspaper of the ruling Baath party, said the Israeli action had been calculated to distract Israelis from their "domestic crises" and to "regain the initiative to call the shots in the Middle East."
The Al Baath report said yesterday's dogfight on the Syrian-Lebanese border began when Syrian jets scrambled to intercept two Israeli F15s "that violated Syrian air space over the Nabk area." Israel has said the dogfight took place when the Syrian jets attacked a regular Israeli reconnaissance flight over the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon near the Syrian border.
Yesterday Syria issued a terse military communique that acknowledged the aerial clash, but not any losses, and asserted that the Syrian jets had succeeded in chasing the Israeli planes back to Israel. Today's report in Al Baath was the Syrian government's strongest statement on the incident, the first major clash between Israeli and Syrian planes since 1982.
Israeli charges that Syria provoked the dogfight either to focus attention on the Middle East during the Geneva summit or to assert its military and political authority over Lebanon were discounted here by western diplomats. Most of these diplomats suggested that the clash was largely accidental, a consequence of Israel's insistence on flying reconnaissance missions over Lebanon and Syria's instinctive scrambling of its jets to shadow them whenever they do so.
"I think if you were looking for a motive to justify why this happened, you will not find one," said one western ambassador here. "These confrontations in the air happen all the time. What is different this time is that one side or the other felt threatened and started shooting. Flying as they do at supersonic speeds in very limited air corridors, it is notable that sooner or later one or the other side is going to shoot at the other."
Despite the accusations published in Al Baath today, western observers considered the Syrian reaction low-key and nonprovocative, a sign that the government of President Hafez Assad did not want to use the incident to trigger a wider confrontation with the Israelis.
Even so, Al Baath was not without a note of warning today. "Syria will not be frightened by Israel's military and political provocations," the newspaper said. "It shall forcibly confront them."