Commentary: U.S. must walk dangerous line to manage twin Syria, North Korea crises

If there was ever any doubt that President Donald Trump’s strike against Syria was also intended to send a message to Pyongyang, the deployment this weekend of a U.S. carrier strike group towards the Korean Peninsula should have cleared it up.

A U.S. Army soldier takes part in Operation Pacific Reach joint logistic exercise in Pohang, South Korea, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

There is now a strange symmetry to the two principal foreign policy crises the Trump administration is confronting: the civil war in Syria and North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program. Each bisects Washington’s relations with its two primary geopolitical rivals, Russia and China. And neither offers an easy solution.

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Washington would like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gone. It believes North Korea’s nuclear ambitions risk a regional conflict, while Syria’s ongoing civil war is destabilizing the Middle East and providing havens for militant groups such as Islamic State.

None of the military options for North Korea are good, and most risk sparking the conflict everyone wants to avoid – possibly while leaving the country’s nuclear program intact. The Obama administration tried to topple Assad through limited support to local forces, without success. No one in the Trump White House has publicly pushed for a large ground intervention, even if Trump could get such an operation past Congress.

At best, the Trump administration hopes it could do a grand bargain with Moscow and Beijing, persuading them to help bring things under control.

At the same time, greater U.S. military action could feed the growing risk of confrontation between nuclear superpowers. Those at the top of the administration – particularly National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, the key voices behind Thursday’s strike – know this. In Thursday’s strike the U.S. military prioritized avoiding Russian casualties, giving Moscow advanced warning and minimizing the threat to Russian advisers believed to be on the targeted Shayrat airbase.

The strike doesn’t appear to be the start of a wider U.S. effort to topple Assad militarily. In a weekend interview with Fox News, McMaster said its goal was largely limited to deterring further use of chemical weapons.

Persuading Russian President Vladimir Putin to switch positions on Assad will be a main focus for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Moscow visit. The strike, however, has hurt Trump’s chances of having improved relations with Putin, who will reportedly not meet the top U.S. diplomat.

At the very least, Moscow now seems likely to step up military support for both Syria and Iran, including possibly the supply of air defense weaponry that will make further U.S. action more difficult.

In the aftermath of the missile launches from U.S. warships in the Mediterranean, Russia sent one of its own vessels to patrol the same area. China’s sole aircraft carrier has also been exercising off the Korean Peninsula, a reminder of its likely opposition to any U.S. military action there.

Russia also reportedly pulled out from its deal to coordinate aerial activities over Syria after the strike, raising the risk of inadvertent incidents. Reports differ on whether the “deconfliction line” has since been reinstated – the U.S. military says it won’t comment on the status of the agreement or exact methods used, but that it continues to communicate with Russian officials.

These disputes could also poison wider relations. Moscow could retaliate for the Syria strike with further violence in Ukraine or by destabilizing Eastern Europe. If relations with China were to collapse over a strike on North Korea, Beijing could become even more assertive in the South China Sea. Alternatively, either power might try to retaliate in cyberspace, sparking a new kind of warfare no one knows how to control.

This weekend’s meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping was always partly intended to be about clearing up some of those differences, or at least making sure all sides knew where they stood. The U.S. administration hopes the strikes on Syria helped show Beijing that Washington is not to be trifled with, but it also wants to hold open the option of partnership.

It may have worked, at least for now. An article in China’s state-run Global Times quoted a Chinese analyst as saying North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was approaching China’s “bottom line”, implying Beijing might take a tougher stance against Pyongyang. But it repeated China’s opposition to U.S. military action, which the analyst and other experts said could bring about “unbearable consequences”.

Washington wants to keep up the psychological pressure on both the North Korean and Syrian leadership. U.S. officials said one option considered but rejected at this stage was a direct “decapitation strike” against Assad . U.S. forces have also reportedly trained for direct attacks on North Korea’s Kim.

For now, the restraining hand of Moscow and Beijing probably keeps that within the realm of diplomatic posturing. As the United States learned in Iraq, regime change can only usher in more problems – but it’s a reminder how the shifting global landscape has changed for Washington since 2003.

In his interview with Fox, McMaster said the Trump administration has managed a remarkable degree of “concurrent activity” this week over Russia, Syria and its summit with China and nobody “even broke a sweat over it”. But neither of these stories is over, and there could be some very sweaty days to come.

About the Author

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.@pete_apps

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.