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Sol Sanders Archive
Monday, September 24, 2007

Syria and North Korea: The seamless fabric of terrorism

It is likely to be a very long time — if ever — to know the full story of what appears to have been an Israeli ground and air raid in northern Syria in early September. Not only do all sides appear anxious to defuse what could become a casus belli for a new Israeli-Arab war, but media ventilation could well lead to exposure of the mechanics of what appears to be joint U.S. and Israeli intelligence that both Washington and Jerusalem want to conceal to use another day.

From the little that we do know, what seems to be the case is that North Korean collaboration — either with materials shipped into Syria or through joint scientific collaboration through Iran — had produced progress for Damascus toward weapons that Israel thought constituted a threat. Those could have been only new, improved versions of the missiles which have been sold Iran and Syria by North Korea [and China].

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But it's been no secret for a decades that Damascus has played around with chemical and perhaps germwarfare weapons of mass destruction. [And, of course, there is the rumor that some parts of Sadam Hussein's stash went to Syria before or during the early days of the Iraq war.] However, with the long history of such weapons often being counterproductive for the aggressor, it has been assumed that nuclear weapons in the hands of Syria constituted a threat of a very different magnitude for Israel. And, therefore, a chastened Prime Minister Ehud Olmert — after Israel's poor showing in the Lebanon war against Hizbullah — and a new Minister of Defense Ehud Barak — hawkish in an effort to redress his disastrous prime ministry's effort at a compromise with the Palestinians — were taking no chances.

But there is an even larger significance to the whole cloudy affair.

If, as seems the case — and President George W. Bush warned against it in his press conference — Pyongyang is pulling a fast one, that is continuing to sell its hi tech weaponry abroad as it seemingly conforms to a process of stepping back from its own nuclear weapons program, then Washington and its allies in East Asia are back at square one. Former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, who knows as much as anyone about the problem of dealing with the North Koreans and their proliferation of weapons of mass destruction around the world, reminds us that Pyongyang has never had a weapons program it did not flog abroad. The income from this trafficking, the blackmail against ethnic Koreans in Japan, and the goodwill and corruption of UN and naivetι of other aid agencies, has been North Korea's only sustenance with a bankrupt economy and a starving population. Add that to the threat to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and you have the formula which has kept the North Korean monarchy in business. Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, did reveal that Washington knew North Koreans were in Syria, and that Syria may have had contacts with "secret suppliers", perhaps the network run by the disgraced Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. The agreement to stand down — or rather to begin to stand down — its weapons program which seemingly was reached in recent weeks with the supposed help of the Chinese did, in fact, fly in the face of this decades-old strategy of the regime.

If it were not to be "regime change" in Pyongyang as an answer to defusing this threat to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, it had to be accompanied with a complete change of strategy for the present North Korean elite. That is, it required them to exchange their blackmail strategy for one of cooperation through massive aid from South Korea, the U.S., and Japan toward integration into the world economic and political system. That certainly was a big dollop to swallow for what has been the most oppressive regime in recent history — and Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il could not have been less aware than the rest of the world of the dozen or so regimes in the Communist world who could only make the transition by dumping their leadership and its hangers-on. The German Democratic Republic, a state to which North Korea has been compared in terms of technical competence and dedication of resources to military strength, collapsed, after all, in 24 hours.

So, then, was Pyongyang simply playing the Bush Administration for a sucker in the same way that Poppa Kim had the Carter Administration when it signed an agreement for ending its nuclear program and went right ahead with progress toward a bomb and sales to pariah states wherever it could find them?

Under the rather vague agreement reached in February by the two Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and host China, North Korea committed itself to disable all its nuclear facilities and to provide a complete declaration of all its nuclear programs. In return, Bush said the United States would be willing to consider a peace treaty with North Korea ending the Korean War and to remove Pyongyang from its categorization as a terrorist state and sanctioned for any trade with the U.S. Still hanging was Tokyo's demands for a complete accounting for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens over several decades which Kim has still yet to make.

Chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said that Washington would attend new meetings of the six partners in the continuing talks which the Chinese said they would reconvene in Beijing, apparently despite whatever happened in Syria.But Beijing apparently announced a postponement from the earlier designated late September date, reportedly at Pyongyang's request. Two weeks after the events in Syria were said to have taken place, the North Korean controlled media were giving prominent to talks between Choe Tae Bok, secretary of the Central Committee of the North's ruling Workers' Party, and Saaeed Eleia Dawood, director of the organizational department of Syria's Baath Arab Socialist Party. North Korea's media had already made noises about any infringement of Syrian sovereignty if it had occurred.

In Damascus, only a day after the raid was supposed to have taken place, Syrian President Basher al-Assad told the BBC that Damascus is willing to live in peace, harmony and in mutual recognition with the State of Israel. He has said that countless times before. And he also said, again, that the price he hinted was a return to Syria of the Gollan Heights, the strategic clifts overhanging a plain which lies only 40 miles as a tank drives into the Syrian capital and where, reportedly, the Israelis had bucked up their armor during the period leading up to the raid and just after it. Israeli commentators took note of the fact that Assad, as other Arab leaders recently, made no mention of concessions to the Palestinians or other issues as part of an Israeli-Syrian deal.

Some otherwise hawkish Israeli kibitzers argue a deal with Syria, whatever the problems of North Korea, is the way for Jerusalem to go, pointing out that previous bilateral arrangements with Egypt and Jordan have been a part of a patchwork of Israeli security, however fragile. The argument is that it would, if successful, detach Syrian from its present working alliance with Iran which has publicly repeatedly announced it aims to destroy Israel , intent as it seems to be in getting nuclear weapons, and with some of its more lunatic fanatics talking about Israel being a "one-bomb country" with no second strike capacity against Tehran.

But Washington strategists would not have this option — even if it were to exist in reality for the Israelis. Repeatedly, at the insistence of the State Department's Arabists — and sometimes of the Qai d'Orsay in Paris — Washington has held out the possibility of a deal with Syria. During the Clinton years and leading into the Bush Administration, there was a steady stream of officials and semi-officials cap in hand who had tea in Damascus and discussed the prospects for a peaceful settlement of Syria's issues not only with Israel but with the West in general. But the murder,— and most Lebanese opponents believe it lies at the floor of Syria, of another anti-Syrian politician in late September in Lebanon — suggests how more than the Israeli issue lies between an accommodation of Damascus with Washington and the West generally. Damascus claims to Lebanon date from the creation of the state itself in the aftermath of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I — and, indeed, the British and French mapmakers might just have well have drawn the state of greater Syria as Lawrence of Arabia had intended. Such dreams of empire die slowly. What this episode seems to indicate is that Bush and his supporters are correct in seeing the world pattern of terrorism as all consuming and all inclusive, that Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even faraway North Korea, are only parts of the whole. Separating them out, neatly, choosing where and when the U.S. will make its commitment to defend its self-proclaimed interests, as some of Bush's Congressional critics would do, is to underestimate the strength of an alliance of opportunism the U.S. and its allies, however reluctant, face.

It's been said too many times that the trouble with U.S. foreign policy is that it is played in Washington as checkers and its opponents play it as chess. Perhaps. But Kim & Co. know the constraints of a bitterly contested commitment in Iraq on U.S. power and political initiative. So does someone as weak as Assad. Cooperation among these otherwise unlikely allies is not as far fetched as it looks at first glance. And it is the reason why the war on terrorism is a worldwide seamless struggle however the variations of warf and woof which would have to continue to engage Washington's broadband attention, even in this silly political season.


Sol W. Sanders, (solsanders@cox.net), is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World Tribune.com and East-Asia-Intel.com.


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