The Bad Guys Are Not (Yet) Impressed by the New Sheriff
The unpredictable North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un this week refrained from conducting his threatened nuclear test or firing a ballistic missile, after the Trump administration took certain military steps: The nuclear submarine USS Michigan with 54 Tomahawks aboard docked in South Korea, where also a THAAD missiles system was deployed and, on Wednesday, April 26, an intercontinental, nuclear-capable Minuteman III ballistic missile traveled over 4,000 miles (6,400km) from California before splashing down in the South Pacific.
However, Kim’s restraint may owe more to prudence than intent. There is no guarantee that when the hullabaloo over his nuclear threats dies down, President Donald Trump won’t wake up one morning and discover that Kim has gone through with his planned sixth nuclear test after all.
It must also be noted that if North Korea was indeed deterred for now, it was not just on account of the Trump administration’s military steps. Chinese President Xi Jinping exerted a degree of political and economic pressure on Pyongyang; and both he and the rogue republic’s other formidable neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, both massed troops on their borders with North Korea.
The new sheriff in town was therefore not alone on the range, and his tactics pointed more towards a wish to gain time for negotiations with the errant North Korean ruler, rather than going to war.
The goal Trump and his advisers outlined in the unusual briefing held for all 100 US senators at the White House Wednesday, April 26, was for a diplomatic process that would lead to the nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula.
That idea may appeal to Kim in the short term, because it would seat him around a table on an equal footing for bargaining with the leaders of the five world powers, exactly like the Islamic Republic of Iran achieved in two years of negotiations on its nuclear program, from 2015 to 2016.
Following the Iranian model, Kim Jong-un, would demand international acceptance of a deal as generous as the one Tehran extracted from the Obama administration. Pyongyang like Tehran would be left with its nuclear and missile capabilities intact and agree to put it on ice for a number of years, against a reward of lifted sanctions and lavish American economic assistance.
The other option offered North Korea, if it rejects the Iranian template, is sanctions tough enough to force Kim to abandon his nuclear aspirations. However, this road was well trodden by past US administrations as penalties for holding Russia, Iran, Syria and North Korea in check, but never achieved much.
A similar approach is shaping up in the Trump administration’s attitude towards Iran and the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
Bashar Assad lost around one-fifth of his air force on April 7, when 59 US cruise missiles wiped out 24 Syrian warplanes at the Shayrat air base. But this solved nothing in the cruel Syrian war; neither will it even stop Syria from again resorting to chemical warfare.
Neither Assad nor the Russians contemplate discarding their most effective tool for defeating the estimated 50,000 armed rebels present in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, near the Turkish border.
Al Qaeda has turned this concentration into a base of expansion into the Syrian arena. It would take from 50,000 to 75,000 additional troops to purge Idlib. An army of that size is not available from any quarter.
Therefore, just as Trump can’t rule out a North Korean nuclear test or ICBM test launch at some time in the future, he can’t count on preventing the Syrian ruler resorting once again to the only weapon capable of wiping out rebel resistance in Idlib.
Next time, Assad may take care not to drop his poison from aircraft, but use artillery shells instead, for which it will be harder for Washington to retaliate.
Tehran too shows no sign of abandoning its interventions in Syria, Yemen or the Gulf region, or its provocative games – although (as we report in a separate article) the ayatollahs may be sending some tentative conciliatory signals to Washington.
As recently as Wednesday, April 26, Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi insurgents steered an unmanned Iranian Revolutionary Guard ship loaded with explosives on a course for the Saudi Aramco oil terminal on the Red Sea shore of Jizan province. The Saudi coast guard intercepted the vessel before it struck.
The Houthis would not have launched an attack on a strategic Saudi oil target unless they were directed to do so by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards command center in their capital, Sanaa.
Similarly, the mixed force of Syrian, Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias, would not have set out from a point southwest of Damascus early Thursday, April 27, en route for Israel’s Golan border, without orders from Tehran. Iran appears certain it has nothing to fear from the new sheriff in Washington in the way of military action.