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September 01, 2013

What Message Would US Acting in Syria Send to Iran and North Korea?

by Scott Stearns

Part of President Barack Obama's argument for a military strike against Syria is a threat to broader U.S. security concerns in the Middle East and Asia.

Secretary of State John Kerry says acting against Syria's use of chemical weapons matters far beyond its borders.

"It is about whether Iran, which itself has been a victim of chemical weapons attacks, will now feel emboldened, in the absence of action, to obtain nuclear weapons," he said. "It is about Hezbollah, and North Korea, and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction.  Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use, or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?"

Acting in Syria would not only check President Assad, it would show President Obama's seriousness to Iran and North Korea, says analyst Michael O'Hanlon.

"Several dozen cruise missiles, perhaps, and a day or two of strikes is probably enough to achieve the immediate purpose of restoring deterrents of weapons of mass destruction use and hopefully getting countries like Iran and and North Korea to notice as they pursue, or consider pursuing nuclear ambitions that President Obama's red lines to them still mean something," he said.

North Korea has held three nuclear tests and a series of long-range missile launches since international talks on its nuclear program stalled nearly five years ago.  Confronting Damascus now is no time to lose sight of Pyongyang, says analyst Michael Auslin.

"Now that Syria is really heated-up, let us keep your eye on North Korea because they might try to pull something right now when they know all of our attention is focused in one direction, pull something on the undefended side of things," he said.

Syrian troops have reversed earlier gains by anti-Assad rebels with help from Iran and the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Using Syria to send a message to Iran may not work as President Obama intends, says analyst Doug Bandow. "To the extent that Iran feels isolated and threatened, in many ways it's more likely to pursue a nuclear weapon," he said.

Bandow says attacking Syria could further convince Iran of its need for a nuclear deterrent. "A lot of people hope if you break Syria you weaken Iran.  And to some degree you do.  But that does not necessarily help advance your larger objective, which is to encourage Iran to be less defensive and encourage Iran to come into the international community and set aside any nuclear ambitions," he said.

Chemical weapons in Syria also threaten U.S. allies in the region, says Secretary Kerry. "It matters to Israel.  It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, all of whom live just a stiff breeze away from Damascus," he said.

Israel has deployed missile defenses against a possible Syrian attack.  But Bandow says striking Israel is too big a gamble for President Assad.

"The Syrian government understands that Israel has overwhelming military force.  So at a time when Syria is engaged in a battle for the regime's life, it can not afford to open a second front with Israel," he said.

Bandow says in many ways the bigger threat for Israel is a win by Syrian rebels because he says those divided opponents would have a far harder time managing state arsenals including chemical weapons.