Why this picture terrifies Israel

Images of the chemical attack in Idlib, Syria, by the country's government would horrify anyone. But Israel views the atrocity in a wider context, says John R Bradley


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 intelligence 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.

John R Bradley is the author of four books on the Middle East


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