Israel strikes Syria and Iranian forces as Pompeo flies in

Jerusalem: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his Bahraini counterpart landed in Israel on Wednesday to mark a new, US-brokered normalisation deal just hours after Israeli forces carried out retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria.

The strikes, which Syria's state media said had killed at least three Syrian soldiers, came a day after Israeli forces found anti-personnel mines planted in Israeli-held territory along the boundary with Syria.

Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdul Latif bin Rashid Alzayani speaks in Jerusalem.Credit:AP

They were part of a long-running campaign as Israel tries to thwart what it describes as a concerted effort by Iran to entrench itself on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that overlooks northern Israel.

The foreign minister of Bahrain, Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani, was making the first official visit since his country agreed in September to normalise relations with Israel — a deal that followed a similar agreement between Israel and Bahrain's Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates. Pompeo arrived later on Wednesday to attend a meeting in Jerusalem of Israeli, Bahraini and American officials.

The normalisation deals were struck in the waning days of the Trump administration to notch final foreign policy achievements just before the November 3 US election.

The sight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Pompeo and al-Zayani standing side by side on a podium at Netanyahu's residence served a victory image for the outgoing Trump administration.

From left to right, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani arrive for a joint press conference after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem.Credit:AP

Netanyahu thanked Pompeo for his "unwavering friendship" and said the normalisation deals would never have been signed "without President Trump's crucial support and leadership".

But after the election of the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, regional powers now appear to be jostling for position amid worries that a Biden administration will be softer on Iran and seek to rejoin the international nuclear deal with Iran, repudiated by President Donald Trump two years ago.

Netanyahu has long rejected the deal, which was meant to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying it was inadequate and dangerous.

Pompeo, who has embarked on a last-minute lap of diplomacy in Europe and the Middle East, said that beside the opportunities for commerce and economic development, the normalisation agreements "also tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning and that they are ever more isolated."

Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken with President-elect Joe Biden.Credit:AP

In what analysts view as an effort to preempt, complicate or narrow Biden's options, Trump is now racing to increase US sanctions against Iran during his last weeks in office and to seal his pledge to sell advanced weapons to Tehran’s regional enemies, including F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.

The recent exposure of the assassination this summer of al-Qaida's No. 2 in a Tehran suburb by Israeli agents working at the behest of the United States could also make it harder for Biden to manoeuvre. Trump is even said to have considered a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities before leaving office but was dissuaded from such a step to avoid the risk of a broader conflagration.

The Trump administration has benefited Israel as well as its Gulf allies. Overturning decades of US diplomacy, Trump recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who now directs the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Wednesday that the Israeli airstrikes were a message to the Iranians that any restraint on Israel's part is over.

He predicted the Iranians would be cautious about responding in the final weeks of the Trump administration. But he warned in series of posts on Twitter: "The campaign against Iranian entrenchment began before the Trump administration and will continue after it."

Netanyahu had a "warm conversation" with US President-elect on Tuesday, local time, Netanyahu's office said, in a delayed and clear acknowledgement of Biden's election defeat of Trump.

"The two agreed to meet soon to discuss the many issues that are pending and reaffirmed the need to continue to strengthen the strong alliance between the United States and Israel," the Israeli statement said.

New York Times, Reuters

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