In Syria, dozens of civilians are killed in a chemical weapons attack that is attributed to the government of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad as part of that country’s brutal, six-year civil war.
In North Korea, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un continues to build his military capacity, which could make the nation capable of launching a nuclear strike against the United States within four years.
And in the United States, President Donald Trump is wielding his own military might to alert Assad, Kim, and other world leaders that the new president is not afraid to act quickly and decisively.
KET’s Kentucky Tonight explored America’s role in these foreign policy hotspots. The guests were Dina Badie, politics and international studies professor at Centre College in Danville; Bruce Hicks, political science professor at University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg; Hossein Motamedi, political science and history professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) in Lexington; and Jonathan Pidluzny, government professor at Morehead State University.
A Policy Shift on Syria?
The gas attack on April 4 against the rebel-held Syrian city of Khan Shaykhun reportedly killed some 70 civilians and injured hundreds of others. The incident was widely blamed on Assad’s military, but the Syrian president has denied any responsibility.
Three days later, President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against the Syrian government air base that was believed to be the source of the attack. The move marked a significant reversal for Trump, who has argued against a deeper military involvement in Syria. What remains unclear is whether the strike against Assad represents a true change of course for Trump, or is merely a single retaliatory strike by the president.
“I don’t think this is a signal that he’s going to completely reverse his position on Syria,” says Morehead State’s Jonathan Pidluzny. “I think he was looking for an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that the United States is willing to carry a big stick and use it from time to time.”
Pidluzny says putting more American military boots on the ground in Syria would be a grave mistake but he believes Trump can strengthen his hand in diplomatic negotiations by using strategic strikes such as this.
Centre College’s Dina Badie says as horrible as the chemical attack was, it’s not enough for a complete shift in America’s policy regarding Assad. Plus she argues that both sides in the Syrian conflict have committed human rights abuses that violate the Geneva Conventions.
Hossein Motamedi of BCTC says Trump’s action not only sends a message to Syria, but also puts Russia and Iran on notice since those nations back the Assad regime. Motamedi says it also helps counter the notion that Trump won’t stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But other than this posturing, Motamedi says the U.S. strike will have little impact.
“This is an outcome-neutral bombing,” says Motamedi. “It’s not going to change the outcome of the war… but it shows the United States has the strength to respond [and] Trump is going to be decisive.”
Decisive action is what some critics of former President Barack Obama argue the Democrat failed to take. In 2012 Obama pledged a military response if Syria crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons in the civil war.
But Assad did just that with a 2013 attack that killed some 1,500 people in suburban Damascus. Instead of the threatened military response, which Congress declined to authorize, Obama used diplomacy to force Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile. Bruce Hicks of the University of the Cumberlands says that strategy ultimately didn’t work, so Trump tried a different approach.
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable at this point to resort to a limited use of force to send Assad a signal that if he uses chemical weapons there’s a price to be paid for that,” says Hicks.
Few Good Options
Motamedi says the U.S. has supported Assad’s opposition and other liberal democratic insurgents in the Middle East since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. But he says those efforts have yielded little success in Egypt, Libya, or Syria. He says without existing institutions for democratic reform, democracies are unlikely to take hold in the Middle East, especially in countries that have been in existence only since the end of World War I. Plus with so many factions usually fighting for control, Hicks says simply removing a dictator can result in a power vacuum that can be filled by even worse people.
“As we resolve old problems, new ones emerge and one of the biggest new ones is the problem with ISIS,” says Motamedi.
Hicks says the potential for Islamic radicals to gain an even stronger foothold in unstable regions like Syria present a clear national security threat for the U.S.
“It’s a breeding ground for ISIS: They can recruit fighters and they can plan attacks, and that’s what’s happening,” says Hicks. “As long as we have this political chaos in Syria, then I think that terrorist threat is only going to grow.”
Yet Badie warns against coupling the fight against ISIS with attempts to oust Assad from power. “They’re not the same and the idea that in order to defeat ISIS you have to get rid of Assad is just not true,” says Badie.
Fighting radical jihadists isn’t as simple as dropping bombs, Badie argues. She says what may look like a good option for fighting ISIS today, may have vastly different consequences in the future. She points to the U.S. backed Mujahidin rebels who opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Yet, Badie says, after that war those rebel fighters gave rise to the Taliban and later Al Qaeda.
Little Appetite for Intervention
America isn’t the only nation with interests in the Syrian conflict. Motamedi says Russia and Iran both back the Assad regime: Syria is an important customer of Russian arms, and the country hosts a vital naval base for the Russians on the Mediterranean. Iran also uses Syria as a route to the Mediterranean and as a link to pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
Pidluzny adds that Turkey is arming Sunni rebels in Syria, while some Gulf States are supporting radical jihadists in the country. Then there’s the United States, which Pidluzny says has an interest in maintaining national boundaries that have existed since the end of the Cold War. Without a clear path to a discernible victory, Pidluzny says it’s not surprising that there’s been little support for another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
“Americans aren’t anti-war, but they’re anti-losing war, and this is a losing war,” Pidluzny says. “There’s no way for U.S. troops to solve this because there are so many sides with completely different and conflicting interests.”
Another issue is the sheer human toll of the civil war. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have died in the conflict and millions more have fled the region. Pidluzny says the tide of refugees flooding into Europe will foster deep political changes on the continent as resentments towards the migrants grow and terrorism continues to escalate.
Badie counters that the terror threats posed by Syrian refugees are not as great as some have claimed. Some American politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have argued for safe zones within Syria as a way to contain the spread of refugees. But Badie argues safe zones can’t be truly safe without extensive security forces to protect them.
“If Mitch McConnell believes that they need to stay in Syria then Mitch McConnell, I hope, is ready to send boots on the ground into Syria,” Badie says. “I don’t think that is the best way to go… we can’t just expect them to stay inside of Syria.”
The real solution to the program, says Motamedi, is to end the civil war there. He says that won’t happen without an agreement among Syrians as well as Russia, Iran, Turkey, America and western European nations. He says the likelihood of that happening is “zero to none.”
Keeping Peace with North Korea
A very different set of problems – but no less intractable and potentially even more dangerous – awaits President Trump in North Korea. Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un has pushed ahead with his nation’s efforts to stockpile nuclear weapons and develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could send an atomic bomb at the United States. North Korea already has enough nuclear and conventional firepower to unleash devastating strikes against South Korea and the more than 30,000 American troops stationed there.
North Korea was expected to test a nuclear weapon this past weekend as part of the commemorations for the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. No nuclear test occurred, but North Korea did attempt to test a missile that exploded seconds after launch.
On a visit to South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence said that the era of “strategic patience” with North Korea was over and that “all options are on the table” to ensure peace and security for South Korea.
Badie says it’s important to remember that Kim is a young leader who hasn’t been in power that long. The 32-year old became North Korea’s leader after the death of his father in late 2011.
“[Kim] sees a new American president that is hostile, that uses very bombastic language, and so he is trying to assert his authority as well,” says Badie. “It’s sort of a war of words between the two sides.”
She says from Kim’s perspective, his goal is to ensure the survival of his regime and his country.
That’s why the nuclear weapons program is so important to Kim, says Pidluzny, because it acts as a deterrent against the United States and other nations that might want to overthrow authoritarian rule in North Korea. It’s also the one bit of leverage the nation has in negotiating with foreign powers.
“North Korea has periodically turned the temperature up with their ICBM tests or with their nuclear weapons tests, and the goal has always been to extract something from the west,” says Pidluzny.
In previous negotiations, North Korea has sought more trade with other nations. Motamedi says more trade means more food to feed the North Korean people, which leads to more security for the regime. Kim has wielded his power to eliminate family members who could challenge his rule, but Motamedi warns that others in the North Korean government could just as easily attempt to eliminate Kim.
“This firing of missiles is also a face-saving measure for Kim Jong-un,” says Motamedi. “Face saving is important because if he doesn’t he may face some kind of an internal revolt on the part of some of his own leaders.”
Motamedi says neither China nor Russia want a major conflict in the region because both countries share a border with North Korea. He says war could result in refugees fleeing into their countries. And he says China fears the prospect of a unified Korea that might remain allied with the west.
President Trump wants the Chinese to be a more forceful with Kim to cease his nuclear ambitions. Hicks says negotiations with the North Koreans on their weapons program haven’t been successful in the past, but he says China is in a unique position to bring pressure on Kim.
“Eighty-five percent of the North Korean economy is trade with China,” says Hicks. “They have leverage, perhaps they can use it.”
As any negotiations proceed, Pdluzny says the challenge will be for Trump to avoid so many bombastic threats that Kim feels backed into a corner. He says the consequences would be devastating if Kim thinks his regime is about to end and so he would have nothing to lose by launching his nuclear arsenal.