There is a lot that is hidden from view, but what we can see is not promising. 

 
The US Secretary of State and other ranking officials are overlooking the considerable Russian investment in Bashar al-Assad, and demanding that Putin et al abandon their ally and work with the US in making Syria a better place.
 
I presume that the officials or people working for them have been through Political Science 101 in good enough colleges to have learned that politics involves the accumulation of power and interests. Individuals and governments do not easily shift partners, especially when their existing partner has  cards, and the alternative none that are apparent.
 
Assad may be a bastard, but so are the Russians. Both sides of the partnership play the same kind of game. Civilian casualties don't  mean much in their rules, especially when the civilians are of a type at the focus of policy dealing with ethnic cleansing, or Sunni cleansing.
 
Expecting Russia to join an American-led coalition would also go against everything that Putin has been pursuing since he reached the  top of the Russian government. That is, carving out a place for Russia at the top of its own coalition, as a great power the equivalent of any other. 
 
Americans and others may not like that, but it ain't wise to ignore it.
 
Perhaps to the sins of the Trump administration for fact creation we can add a belief in political fairies that will get in the way of sensible policymaking.
 
Meanwhile, Israeli and American media were headlining the comparison of Assad with Hitler and the claim that Hitler never used chemical weapons, both coming from the White House spokesman.
 
Haaretz cartoonist portrayed the escalating war of words between Washington and Moscow with a High Noon image of Trump and Putin getting ready to shoot.
 

 
Showing the flag, i.e., a carrier task force, off the coast of North Korea is also worrying America's friends, especially those in Japan and South Korea most likely to suffer from a North Korean response that might be nuclear. 
 
Comments suggest the South Koreans and Japanese are worried more about the Americans than about the North Koreans, who have broken some of the rules, but have not yet damaged their neighbors in a significant way since the 1950s..
 
The latest threat from Pyongyang is that it will send nuclear missiles toward the United States.
 
The US, Russia, China, Britain and France co-existed for decades with nuclear weapons without igniting the world. India and Pakistan also co-exist next to one another with similar ghastly weapons. Israel has kept whatever it has in the basement.
 
All have played by the rule of Don't make things worse, and we'll hope the same for Trump and his people.
 
North Korea shows signs of being less reliable than other members of the nuclear club. 
 
Israelis are not comfortable with what is happening in Syria, but they haven't been comfortable with that country since 1948. Yet they learned to co-exist alongside of it. In recent years the IDF has operated against a nuclear facility, several shipments of munitions to Hezbollah, and against occasional instances of firing across the border. Assad has threatened retaliation, but done nothing.
 
For years the border was among Israel's quietest. It may have taken the instability produced by a civil war with numerous competing militias, and the prospects of Hezbollah and/or Iranian bases on the Syrian side of the Golan to heat up the prospect of Israeli intervention. Till now, Israeli officials have been careful and explicit to avoid taking sides.  
 
It's not hard to imagine an Israeli preference for Assad, as opposed to the alternatives apparent, and hopes to return to a tense, but quiet region along the border. 
 
If we have to live next door to a bastard, it's better than a collection of competing war lords, some of them serious about attacking us.
 
My own view of Syrian-Israeli self control came during the 1982 war in Lebanon, when I was sent to lecture the troops along the Syrian border. One of my venues was right on the frontier, within sight of a Syrian tank whose cannon was pointed at me. However, there was a clothes line from the cannon to a nearby tree, with laundry drying in the sun, and a Syrian soldier walking near the tank clothed only in his underpants.
 
One didn't have to be an officer in the intelligence corps to discern the message being sent, that this would be a peaceful front, despite the warfare occurring a few kilometers to the west. 
 
Israel, Russia, and Syria have a long history of working together, more or less at arms reach. Without really knowing, we should assume that Israel has personnel in Syria, and means of communicating with the Assad government as well as the Russians. Subtlety, nuance, hint, veiled threat, and reliability are important in these relationships.. 
 
Trump's tweets are something else. One should expect that the Exxon-experienced Secretary of State knows the appropriate language. A charitable view of his comments about Russia and Assad is that he is speaking to Trump's American constituency, and saying something else to Russians and Syrians. A less charitable view, is that he is required to use Trump-like language, and that his boss thinks that is the way to do international business.
 
We've heard time and again American politicians closing their remarks with a request that the Almighty protect the United States. In the same spirit, while Donald Trump is learning the ways of government and his presidency, the rest of us can ask the Almighty to protect us from the United States.
 
Comments welcome. 
-- 
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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