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A century after the ‘war to end all wars’, U.S. faces high stakes in Syria, Korea standoffs

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The parallel crises of Syria and North Korea has forced policymakers to simultaneously concentrate on two geopolitical challenges over which big power interests coincide and may collide.

China, Russia and the USA, the primary Powers, along with Britain and France in the chorus, are entrenched behind their respective proxies and readying for a renewed game of high stakes political poker. And with a strange irony, these events unfold a century to the date after America’s entry into World War One, the war to end all wars.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is returning to waters near the Korean peninsula. / Tom Tonthat / Handout via Reuters

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is returning to waters near the Korean peninsula. / Tom Tonthat / Handout via Reuters

Diplomacy’s role in the brewing confrontation may be sidelined by both the ongoing deadlock in the UN Security Council and the exasperated wish by the Powers to once and for all “solve” the crises, be it Syria’s gruesome civil war or North Korea’s looming nuclear weapons capacity.

Syria’s hideous chemical weapons attack in rebel held Idlib region killing at least 87 and injuring hundreds of other civilians clearly ranks as a war crime.

But could the yet fully substantiated attack be part of a larger false narrative to finally and fatefully draw Western powers into attacking the Assad regime in Damascus? Let’s not jump to conclusions!

The Idlib sarin gas attack may trigger getting the USA to enter the wider war against Syria’s longtime family dictatorship, only then to realize that many of the rebels facing Assad are lethal Islamist jihadists ranging from the Al-Nusra terrorists to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS)?

Days before the fateful chemical attack, American UN Ambassador Nikki Haley assured correspondents that, “Assad is a war criminal.” Later in the wake of the atrocity, Amb. Haley rhetorically bashed both Assad and Russia in the Security Council.

President Trump scathingly stated, “I think what Assad did is terrible. I think what happened in Syria is a disgrace to humanity.” Agreed.

Yet with Echoes of the Obama Administration’s notoriously feckless “red line” in Syria four years ago after a somewhat similar attack, Donald Trump warned, “it crossed a lot of red lines for me.” He added, “My attitude towards Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

Acting decisively Trump ordered targeted cruise missile attacks on the Syrian airbase from which the chemical attack was allegedly launched.

Replacing the dictator Assad would create a dangerous power vacuum favoring a murky network of jihadi fundamentalist rebels. Remember post Gadhafi Libya?

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres stated, “Nobody is winning this war. Everybody is losing. It poses a danger to us all.”

He added, “The fight against terrorism is vital, but any success will be ephemeral without a political solution to the crisis in Syria.”

Russia backs Syria; such remains a political given since the days of the old Soviet Union.

Moscow maintains a strategic Mediterranean naval port in Tartus and over the last few years has sent powerful Air Force squadrons which essentially saved Assad’s regime.

Before any decisive tipping of the fragile balance of power, there must be a credible and impartial investigation of the attack to ensure accountability for the heinous action.

Half a world away on the Korean peninsula, attention is transfixed on North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity and the ability to deliver the weapons by missiles. Significantly, Korea remains the vortex of overlapping big power interests; China, Russia, the USA and Japan.

President Donald Trump’s meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping focused on North Korea and cajoled Beijing to use its considerable political/economic influence to reign in Kim Jong-un’s increasing belligerent behavior.

Though China and the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) were once close ideological comrades, times have changed and the commercial balance of power clearly favors Beijing’s burgeoning business ties with capitalist South Korea.

Mainland China has been South Korea’s number one trading partner for over a decade.

And here’s the key to the argument. While Beijing’s old time communists may have nostalgic feelings for the DPRK, the business bottom line favors the South. Equally, should North Korea recklessly use a nuclear weapon in East Asia, collateral damage will see China suffer massive business fallout in terms of lost trade, investment and tourism.

Clearly conflict on the Korean peninsula is not in China’s commercial interests.

Thus it compels the Powers to work to defuse both the DPRK and Syria before the deadly consequences reach the next level of violence. The U.S. missile attacks on Syrian airbases, carried out while President Trump is meeting Xi Jinping is a bold reminder of focused American military power. Xi took notice. But what is needed now is Statecraft not posturing.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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