Several dozen Syrian civilians gathered near the entrance to Camp Faouar, the command headquarters of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force on the Syrian side of the border on the Golan Heights. The demonstrators approached the gates, cursing, throwing stones and waving placards calling for the people wearing the blue UN berets to leave their country. Eventually, a crowd-dispersal team came out, protected by transparent body armor and brandishing batons. The melee escalated and water hoses and tear gas were of no avail. An Austrian soldier was severely wounded and a Croatian soldier was abducted. UNDOF commander Gen. Natalio Ecarma of the Philippines demanded that the Syrian army's liaison officer intervene, impose order and return the abducted soldier. Ecarma also phoned New York and asked for urgent instructions from the UN secretary general.

This scenario has not come to pass, but the possibility of an incident like this happening is worrisome indeed. In preparation for such an eventuality, an exercise called "Iron Fist" was held by UNDOF last year - even before recent demonstrations erupted in Syria.

In less than a month, on May 31, UNDOF's mandate, which has been renewed every six months since May 1974, will lapse if it is not renewed. In Damascus they can decide to oppose its renewal, but it is not at all certain that final decisions on this matter will be made by the regime: Perhaps they will be dictated by a mob as part of some independent action, or perhaps with the encouragement of elements hostile to Israel. Virtually no official body in the world, including the White House, disagrees that the Golan belongs to Syria, was unilaterally annexed by Israel, and should be returned.

If the UNDOF mandate is not extended, 1,265 uniformed troops and civilians from Austria, India, Japan, the Philippines, Canada and Croatia will pack their bags. They will withdraw from the observation posts and from the highest manned UN outpost in the world: on Mount Hermon, at 2,814 meters above sea level. They will fly home and leave behind the two countries, which have not taken advantage of the decades of truce to make peace. And the UN will save $48 million a year.

Indeed, there have been 37 years of almost total quiet on the border between Israel and Syria. One reserve soldier has been killed there, Ehud Ben-Mordechai, 20 years ago, in an attack by terrorists who infiltrated from Syria. That country's confrontations with Israel were "relocated" to Lebanon (where there were clashes between armored forces in June 1982), to the aerial arena (until November 1985 ) and to Israeli attacks on Syrian targets (ground-to-air missile batteries, an atomic reactor ).

During those decades Syria lost one strategic "prop" - the Soviet Union - and adopted another, Iran. It also began to use an indirect approach to relations in the region, with the help of Hezbollah and Hamas: Khaled Meshal is Damascus' permanent guest, hidden away just as Imad Mughniyeh was.

If an Iron Fist scenario occurs and precipitates the collapse of the existing separation mechanism between Israel and Syria, it will in effect create a situation similar to that on the Egyptian front in May 1967, when Gamal Abdel Nasser demanded the expulsion of the UN force, just before the Six-Day War broke out. To the heightened probability of hostilities must be added the concern that a Syrian attack on Israel could include the launching of missiles carrying chemical and biological warheads.

Laughing matters

Until now, in his 10 years at the helm, Syrian President Bashar Assad - like his father Hafez during his 30 years of rule - has been aware of the limitations of his power against Israel. A war would threaten his regime. But this equation is liable to change if his rule is even more seriously threatened from within than at present, and launching a war to liberate the Golan (and at the same opportunity, he could say, ostensibly to benefit a Palestinian state ) might save him, according to his desperate logic.

Israel has become accustomed to the Alaouite sect that rules the country, preferring it to the unknown, which is liable either to turn out to be a radical Islamic regime connected to Iran, or to be some hotheaded military officer such as those involved in the series of putsches in the 1950s and '60s. If Bashar, in a near suicidal back-to-the-wall situation, decides he has nothing to lose, Israel could decide to punish both him and his family personally in response to an attack initiated by him. But how should Israel act if, at this sensitive time, the Iranians try to send weapons of their manufacture to Hezbollah via Syrian territory, something that could help tip the strategic balance? Israel will find it difficult to hold back, but if it tries to thwart the transfer, this might spur the weakened Assad to embark on military action.

Israel and Syria do not have sufficiently developed channels of communication to prevent a deterioration in their existing relations. Discussions by army officials, even in the presence of other elements, never ripened - in large part because of the Syrians' suspicion and reticence.

For its part, the Pentagon is fortunate at present in having good connections with Egyptian army officials, who study at U.S. academies and train with American equipment. Defense Department officials are saying that this military relationship and American tutoring helped convince Mohammed Tantawi and his comrades-in-arms to depose Hosni Mubarak rather than subdue the rebellion by force. But when it comes to Syria, as CENTCOM commander Gen. James Mattis pointed out in a recent congressional hearing, similar relations with U.S. forces were not nurtured because of Damascus' support of terror organizations.

It is instructive to look back, in this context. For example, in June 1974, the American delegation to the talks in Geneva after the Yom Kippur War sent a cable to Washington entitled "Humor and miscellany at Israel-Syrian disengagement military work group meetings, June 1-5." It presented an "atmosphere" picture, describing how the parties spoke directly to each other once the ice had been broken by the need to consult maps together. The agreement there, which engendered UNDOF, was achieved thanks to the Arabic maps provided by Israel and on the basis of the Israeli draft accord. Also, the Israel Defense Forces' staff work was excellent.

In order to give Israel the cold shoulder, the representative of the Syrian army, Gen. Adnan Tayara, shared a table with the Egyptian representative, Gen. Taha Magdoub. At the second working meeting on June 2, "jokes and laughter were much more characteristic of Israeli and UN participants - often joined by jolly Egyptian Brig. Gen. Magdoub - than of Syrians," reported the American delegation. At one point, the Israelis were asked, according to the cable, about their naval capabilities in Lake Kinneret:

Maj. Gen Herzl Shafir (smiling ): "What do you mean? We don't have any nuclear submarines there."

Tayara (unsmiling ): "Your boats."

Israeli Col. Dov Sion (laughing ): "Fishing boats."

Tayara (unsmiling ): "The military and police boats you have there."

Shafir: "That was before 1967. We don't need them any more."

Tayara (unsmiling ): "You may need them again."

The Israeli conclusion from these exchanges, it was reported to Washington, was "that Syrians were obviously instructed to be forthcoming and cooperative, but they are a long way from changing into jolly, joking Egyptians."

Humor aside, one must remember that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat dragged Hafez Assad into the 1973 war, signed a peace agreement with Israel and became the darling of the Americans. Israel, in exchange, built up its army in anticipation of possible conflict with Syria - in circumstances where peace agreements had been struck with Egypt and Jordan - to deter Damascus from attacking, to threaten Assad, and "to create conditions that will give the government echelon an advantage in negotiations," in the words of Gabi Ashkenazi when he was GOC Northern Command.

The upshot of all this is that it is Syria that will likely decide not only when to start a war (unless its intention is exposed and Israel hurries to land a pre-emptive strike on it ), but also when to end it. And if it refuses to surrender, Syria could decide to drag the campaign into a war of attrition and thwart in the diplomatic arena any imagined IDF advantages on the ground and damage to Syrian assets.

No Israeli expert can presume to predict whether Bashar Assad will squelch the current uprising, be toppled in a palace coup or be swept away on the waves of the revolution. Before this uprising former Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said that in Syria there is no hatred toward the regime as there was in Egypt, but that there are elements of serious resistance there, and external observers - including intelligence organizations - do not know everything that is happening "in mosques, markets and student housing." In Egypt, noted Yadlin, "The army took control and the whole difference is that instead of an 80-year-old-plus general from the air force, there is an 80-year-old-minus general from the ground forces [Tantawi]."

In Yadlin's opinion, Syria's current place is "unnatural, between the Shi'ites in Iran and in Lebanon." A different Syria is possible - but not a certainty: "A secular, Sunni state that will not do whatever Iran dictates and will not transfer weapons to Hezbollah."

Such a development would, of course, involve renewal of Jerusalem-Damascus peace talks, a possible return of the Golan, security arrangements and a rapprochement between Damascus and Washington.

After the Yom Kippur War officials in the IDF preferred to adopt the worst-case scenario vis-a-vis any Syrian move. The then-new chief of staff, Mordechai "Motta" Gur, who had twice been GOC Northern Command during battles with Syria, was afraid of failing like his predecessor, David Elazar, whose five years in the same post did not "inoculate" him against the bitter surprise of October 6, 1973.

In November 1974, toward the end of the first UNDOF mandate, the tension on the northern border reached a peak. When it subsided, the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, Richard Murphy, chatted with Syrian Chief of Staff Hikmat Shihabi. The Israelis' nerves are strained, commented Shihabi. The Israeli government was looking for an excuse to renew the war, for domestic reasons and to improve morale. Meanwhile, on the Voice of Israel radio station bellicose commentaries were being broadcast, particularly one by retired Gen. Chaim Herzog, threatening unpleasant consequences if Syria did not agree to renew UNDOF's mandate.

Shihabi, who in the 1990s was still chief of staff, met in Washington with heads of Military Intelligence who had become chiefs of staff, Ehud Barak and Amnon Shahak, and spoke in a scathing manner. He said he did not believe that Israel was innocently mistaken in its interpretation of events on the Syrian border in November '74, but if indeed that was the case then "in October 1973 [Military Intelligence] failed to see what was actually happening, while in November '74, it saw something that was not happening."