Syr­ian gas at­tack and Is­rael’s hor­ror

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHN R BRADLEY John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Mid­dle East

WHEN US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump hosted Egypt’s au­to­cratic pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah El-Sisi at the White House this week, the last thing ei­ther leader wanted to dis­cuss were hu­man rights. In­stead, they fo­cused on the need for mu­tual co­op­er­a­tion in the fight against ter­ror­ism, both in­side Egypt and through­out the wider re­gion.

In­ter­na­tional hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tions were out­raged at Mr Trump’s warm em­brace of a leader widely con­demned for hav­ing bru­tally si­lenced all dis­sent against his rule at home. But close ob­servers of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to rad­i­cally re­shape US Mid­dle East pol­icy merely re­acted with a col­lec­tive yawn.

Just days ear­lier, the US Am­bas­sador the UN, Nikki Ha­ley, had, af­ter all, called Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad a “war crim­i­nal” but si­mul­ta­ne­ously strongly hinted that co­op­er­at­ing with him would be cru­cial if Daesh is to be de­feated.

With Mr Trump’s em­brace last month of Saudi Ara­bia’s de facto leader Prince Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, it is now clear that, af­ter decades of dis­as­trous mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in the Mid­dle East with the pur­ported goal of spread­ing democ­racy, Wash­ing­ton has re­verted to the his­tor­i­cally tried and tested.

Namely: the ac­cep­tance of un­savoury but pow­er­ful Arab dic­ta­tors, in the name of pri­ori­tis­ing re­gional sta­bil­ity and strength­en­ing global se­cu­rity. Thus Is­rael finds it­self, one again, sud­denly caught in the midst of a geopo­lit­i­cal sand­storm.

On the one hand, the bring­ing back into the fold of the two Arab su­per­pow­ers, Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt, is pos­i­tive news.

For as a re­sult of the mu­tual threat posed by Shia-dom­i­nated Iran, Is­rael now en­joys un­prece­dented in­telli- gence ties with both Sunni Arab coun­tries — and the last thing Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship wants to hear is news of a rup­ture in re­la­tions be­tween ei­ther of them and Wash­ing­ton.

On the other hand, as Daesh faces obliv­ion in its self-de­clared Caliphate strad­dling war-torn north­ern Syria and Iraq, Is­rael now more than ever con­sid­ers a po­ten­tially nu­clear-armed Iran and its proxy mili­tia Hizbol­lah — both cru­cial al­lies of Mr As­sad — as its main se­cu­rity threat.

Wash­ing­ton’s ap­par­ent green light for Mr As­sad to re­main has rightly pro­voked hor­ror around the world as im­ages emerged this week of a regime-di­rected chem­i­cal at­tack on Idlib in north­west Syria, which left dozens dead.

How­ever, Mr Trump’s ap­par­ent shift on As­sad will have been greeted with par­tic­u­lar out­rage in Tel Aviv.

In­deed, just as Ms Ha­ley was speak­ing about Mr As­sad at the UN, the direc­tor-gen­eral of the In­tel­li­gence Min­istry in Is­rael, Cha­gai Tzuriel, was is­su­ing a stark warn­ing that Iran is now brazenly build­ing work­shops and fa­cil­i­ties to make ad­vanced rock­ets in­side Le­banon.

And Iran’s ef­forts to es­tab­lish a “land bridge” stretch­ing from Iran, through Iraq, Syria and then into Le­banon could come to fruition, he ex­plained, just as Daesh is fi­nally be­ing crushed.

Worse, Mr Trump has al­ready sig­nif­i­cantly soft­ened his stance on the Ira­nian nu­clear deal, call­ing for closer mon­i­tor­ing rather than for it to be scrapped.

And he has re­peat­edly sig­nalled his will­ing­ness to co­op­er­ate re­gion­ally with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin — the main mil­i­tary backer of Iran and Syria.

All of which means that Rus­sia now has less in­cen­tive than ever to pur­sue a pol­icy in Syria that bal­ances its al­liance with Is­rael with the lat­ter’s con­cerns about Moscow’s Shia al­lies.

And all this in the wake of the Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry’s re­ported dis­plea­sure at on­go­ing Is­raeli air strikes in­side Syria tar­get­ing weapons ship­ments sent from Iran and des­tined for Hizbol­lah.

Given this high-stakes game be­ing played out be­tween Is­rael, Rus­sia and Syria, Is­raeli of­fi­cials will surely be keen dur­ing the com­ing months to ex­press to Mr Trump how his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s short-sighted ef­forts to bring sta­bil­ity to the re­gion se­ri­ously risks, in the long term, pro­vok­ing an­other cat­a­strophic con­flict.

PHOTO: AP

Af­ter­math of the chem­i­cal at­tack on Idlib this week

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