Commentary / Japan

From Damascus to Pyongyang

by Kuni Miyake

On April 13 in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an attack against Syria’s chemical weapon targets. Simultaneously in Japan, I was supervising a 24-hour war game on a crisis in the Korean Peninsula. This policy simulation event was organized by the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), an independent think tank in Tokyo.

Since U.S. media had long expected the strike as something coming sooner as well as much larger in scale, I was neither shocked nor surprised at the news. What surprised me most, however, was that the attack this time was just numerically larger (105 missiles instead of 59 in the similar attack a year ago) but not qualitatively.

I rather naively expected a series of U.S. military operations not only against the Syrian forces but also against the Iranian and/or their affiliate forces stationed on the Syrian soil. Simply put, without addressing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s presence in Syria, there will be no final solution to the tragic civil war.

Contrary to what Trump said on April 14, the mission was never accomplished in Syria. A limited air strike against three Syrian chemical weapon targets would only save face for Trump. A full-scale attack against the Russians, however, could trigger an undesirable all-out U.S.-Russia war. OK, but why not against Iranians?

While the world’s media focus on relations between the United States and Russia, the allied but limited military operation against Syria reminded me of the ominous similarities and differences between Damascus and Pyongyang. After supervising the CIGS war game, I am now more concerned about the upcoming U.S.-North Korea summit.

The Tokyo war game was a great success. Nearly 70 Japanese, Americans, Chinese and South Koreans participated, including Diet members, incumbent and retired bureaucrats both in uniform and in civilian clothing, scholars of international relations, journalists and businesspersons from various fields. They were divided into six “country teams,” namely Japan, the U.S., Russia, China, South Korea, North Korea and the press corps. They first rehearsed a North-South Korea summit meeting to be held on April 27 and then a U.S.-North Korea summit meeting expected to be held by early June.

In the Tokyo war game I supervised, the U.S.-North Korea summit didn’t last long. Then China proposed four-party talks, excluding Russia and Japan, to agree on a North Korean freeze of its development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a U.S. freeze of its hostile policy vis-a-vis North Korea and a forum to “denuclearize the peninsula” and to lift economic sanctions on North Korea. The proposal by the China team was nearly successful until the U.S. president finally killed the almost-agreed-upon deal. From then on, the simulation game entered a confrontational phase. Eventually mutual hostilities led to Pyongyang conducting a real atmospheric nuclear test somewhere in the southern Pacific using an ICBM.

The U.S. team, considering the test as a clear challenge against the peace and stability of the international order, eventually launched massive air raids against not only North Korean nuclear weapons facilities and its various ICBM, medium-range ballistic missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile launch sites but also on all the artillery units and multiple rocket launchers above the 38th parallel.

Although the U.S. team in the game first tried to launch a limited strike against North Korea, it eventually learned that there can be no “limited” U.S. attack against North Korea which, unlike Syria, possesses both conventional and non-conventional weapons powerful enough not to be intimidated by the U.S. “provocation.”

Concurrently, the China and Russia teams rushed their forces to the North Korean territories and both tried to control the situation. The U.S. and South Korea teams, on the contrary, would not try to cross the 38th parallel at the beginning (but eventually did). Japan, having no reasons to be militarily involved on the peninsula, was totally left behind.

Of course, it was only a war game and the conclusions would by no means imply any specific future developments involving a military crisis on the Korean Peninsula. However, when I read about the details of the U.S.-led joint operation in Syria, I felt something ominous regarding the raid against Damascus and another against Pyongyang.

Damascus possesses chemical weapons and has often used them. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime will not survive without help from Tehran, which possesses ICBMs but has no nuclear warheads yet. Pyongyang possesses both nuclear warheads and ICBMs, and is willing to modernize its strategic nuclear missile force in the years to come.

In Syria, the U.S. repeated a limited air strike targeting the Syrian chemical weapon facilities but has not taken effective measures to lessen the influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard there. On May 12, the U.S. may not renew the Iran sanctions waivers under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Trump wishes to overhaul.

Should the United States ever decide to withdraw from the JCPOA, how could Trump agree with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on a denuclearization deal in their June summit meeting? North Korea now is a self-declared “nuclear power” with much more robust nuclear capability — none of which Iran has even acquired yet.

In addition, the latest air strike against Syria might have rightly convinced Pyongyang that since the Americans will never hesitate to use force against countries they consider to be “rogue states,” North Korea has countless reasons to continue its various ongoing nuclear weapons development programs.

To make matters worse, as we found in the Tokyo war game, even a “limited” air raid against North Korea’s nuclear weapon facilities might push Pyongyang to launch a desperate all-out non-nuclear (or even nuclear) retaliation against such vulnerable big cities like Seoul.

The implications of the limited U.S.-led air raid against Syria are not about Russia. They concern Damascus, Tehran and Pyongyang. How the U.S. deals with them matters greatly to Japan. This is the reason why Tokyo must seriously follow the situation in Syria no matter how distant it appears to be.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.