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Last Updated: Monday, 17 July 2006, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
All quiet on the Syrian front
By Martin Asser
BBC News, Damascus

Hamadiyeh market in old Damascus
An escalation of the conflict could upset the Syrian economy
The announcement that Sunday's British Airways flight from London was not allowed to land in Damascus "for security reasons" was greeted with irritation by those on board (myself included).

It meant flying on to the final destination, the Jordanian capital Amman, and then driving to the Syrian capital in an exhausting overnight slog.

But the same information was greeted with more concern by Syrians on the ground, some of whom took it to mean that Israeli air attacks might be imminent, targeting their infrastructure in the same way that Lebanon's has been hit in the last week.

Israel has accused Syria of supplying parts of missiles fired by Lebanese militants from Hezbollah, which have reached deeper and deeper into northern Israeli in recent days.

"You don't think they're going to hit Syria do you?," asked one night-owl we met on the desert highway.

"The Israelis wouldn't be stupid enough, would they? If they hit Syria, that's World War III," he added.

Intentions unknown

Damascus has pledged "appropriate retaliation" if Israel turns its sights on Syria in the seemingly escalating armed conflict with Lebanese guerrillas on its northern borders.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki in Damascus
Iran's foreign minister was in Damascus as the crisis escalated
The expectation is that Iran, Syria's close ally and a fellow supporter of Hezbollah, would also join the fray, bringing a dangerous new international dimension to the current crisis.

Visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki would not answer questions from a jostling scrum of reporters after his meeting with Syrian Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa about just what Iran was intending to do.

But elsewhere on the streets it is very much business as usual, though the thronging markets (and hotel lobbies) have the added element of hundreds of Gulf Arabs in their distinctive traditional clothes.

They had been planning to spend a pleasant summer in the much-prized cool mountain air in the hills surrounding the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Instead they find themselves paying $1,000 for hastily-arranged taxis out of the country as Israeli warplanes prowl the skies overhead.

Most Damascenes are sparing plenty of thoughts for the suffering of their Arab brethren stuck in Lebanon, on the other side of the ante-Lebanon mountain range that looms over this ancient city.

There is even a modicum of sympathy for the Israeli civilians dying and suffering - though not in such large numbers as the Lebanese - under Hezbollah's rockets.

"We just want peace. Why does everyone have to suffer, when the path to peace - Israel leaving occupied Arab land - is so clear?" says one, referring particularly to the Golan Heights, which have been in Israeli hands since the 1967 war.

Arab dignity

In a backstreet of the cavernous Hamadiyeh market, a young shopkeeper's son tells me how most of his teenage friends are excited about this latest chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"They see the Lebanese resistance, and they hope for a chance to prove themselves against the Israeli enemy."

Reporters outside the office of the Syrian foreign minister
Reporters swarmed towards the foreign ministry for information
I remind him of a similar phenomenon during the three weeks of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, when resistance there was seen as somehow restoring Arab dignity after so many humiliations - and what happened next.

He agrees: "It is only the young people saying this. The old people know what war is like, and so they want peace."

People here are used to military threats from Israel, a militarily superior power to Syria despite its vastly smaller physical size.

But the prevailing view is that Syria is too big a target for Israel to take on at this time, especially as its American ally is already heavily engaged in neighbouring Iraq.

The most palpable fear in Damascus today is what could be the knock-on effect of Lebanon's misfortune on Syria's economy.

For example, a collapse of the Syrian pound could spell serious trouble for government employees struggling on 10,000 Syrian pounds ($200) a month.

It is just enough to get by at the moment, but could mean penury if the situation got worse.

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