Mac Deford: Syria Is a Tragedy; North Korea a Potential Disaster
Thursday, April 13, 2017 10:20 AM
Syrian President Assad’s sarin gas bombing of a rebel-held town helped President Trump accomplish a virtual first in his presidency: bipartisan praise for his subsequent missile attack against a Syrian air base.
But if Trump’s aggressive move against Assad earned a thumbs-up from both aisles of Congress, it accomplished little else.
The Syrian civil war, now entering its seventh year, is an impossible quagmire. Not only have hundreds of thousands been killed and half the population displaced, millions have fled Syria altogether. Jordan and Lebanon, neither the most stable of countries, share close to 4 million Syrian refugees. Nearly 20 percent of Lebanon’s population is now made up of displaced Syrians. And there’s a small border town in Turkey, that no one has ever heard of, that itself has 10 times the Syrian refugees the US has.
Trump sees benefit in retaliation against Assad’s murderous behavior, but it doesn’t extend to opening our doors to more than a bare token of Syrian refugees.
Quite apart from the obvious human catastrophe, the longer the unending war continues, the greater the risk it will seriously destabilize its Arab neighbors. Turkey hardly faces the same dangers as Lebanon and Jordan, but Syrian refugees traveling through Turkey have increased tensions between Turkey and many European countries. And, ironically, by stirring up his Syrian Kurdish opposition, which the US is arming, Assad has created serious problems between the US and Turkey, which worries more about its own Kurdish population’s separatist dreams than it does about the extremist Sunni organization ISIS.
Russia has its own, quite specific interest in seeing Assad, or at least his regime, remain in power: its naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean would be at serious risk were Assad replaced by a pro-Western leader. And beyond that well-defined interest, Russia’s foray into Syria has made it a Middle Eastern force. An Assad defeat would be a serious blow to Putin’s effort to enhance Russian power.
Iran backs Assad for the obvious reason that Syria is a key link in the Shi’ite arc that stretches from Iran through Iraq, into Syria, and finally, to Lebanon, where Hezbollah, the Shi’ite political party, exerts increasing influence.
The real danger of the continuing Syrian conflict is not just the risk to its neighbors, but the fact that the eastern third of Syria, while largely desert, is controlled by ISIS. Assad’s government, which still controls Damascus and most of the populated areas of central and coastal Syria, is Alawite, a unique offshoot of Syria’s minority Shi’ites, which serves as an ISIS recruiting tool amongst Syria’s majority Sunni population.
Because its Muslim population in the Caucasus has provided ISIS with recruits, ISIS is considerably more dangerous to Russia than to the US. That fact should certainly provide the basis for serious coordination between Russia and the US about dealing with ISIS.
Secretary of State Tillerson was in Moscow yesterday; presumably Syria was at the top of his agenda. The Russians would rather have no solution than one that involves the ousting of Assad and his replacement by one of the rebel Sunni factions, which would be anti-Iranian, Westward-leaning, and have little interest in seeing Russia keep its naval base in Syria.
Even if President Putin and Donald Trump were to agree that Assad must go — as Obama so famously decreed some five years back — part of the deal would obviously involve whoever replaced Assad agreeing to Russia’s continuing naval presence at Tartus.
The US would perhaps — possibly, conceivably, maybe — agree to such an arrangement if it would involve increased Russian military action against ISIS. But it’s a non-starter: an Assad replacement that was acceptable to Russia would not be acceptable to the various Sunni groups that are fighting Assad. In short, it’s hard to see how any form of US-Russian collaboration could bring an end to the Syrian civil war.
But if the situation in Syria is intractable, at least it’s not quite as dangerous as the equally intractable situation in North Korea. North Korea has nuclear weapons.
North Korea has as well a large military armed with short-range missiles that could devastate Seoul, South Korea’s capital of nearly 15 million. Worse, North Korea is rapidly developing intercontinental missiles that within a few years could reach across the Pacific. Whether or not North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is as erratic as many claim, the US certainly doesn’t want to see his unpredictability aligned with an ability to hit our west coast with nuclear warheads.
The US has few options in dealing with this rapidly developing threat from North Korea. North Korea could easily launch an attack against Seoul, inflicting enormous casualties, if the US were to take out its missile sites. The fact that thousands of US troops are stationed in South Korea along the border, and would respond immediately, would not prevent the civilian devastation.
North Korea has little to gain from initiating an attack — it would be virtually obliterated in the war that followed — but the risk that a threatened, ill-informed Kim might kick off a war is real.
China is obviously the key player. But even China would not be able to prevent Kim from acting suddenly, and irresponsibly, if he thinks his regime is at risk.
What is the answer? Would a Chinese-orchestrated summit meeting, with both Koreas as well as Russia and the US, make sense? Rewarding North Korea with even a modicum of international respectability — with its despicable human rights record and its aggressive, irresponsible behavior — is an offensive suggestion to many. But there was a time when Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Russia, was similarly ostracized by the West.
The North Korean threat is simply too dangerous — and it will be even more so in the future — to continue to be handled through sanctions and isolation.