November 25, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

From North Korea, Lessons About Syria

Commenting on North Korea’s newly revealed uranium enrichment facility, and its subsequent unprovoked shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, former US president Jimmy Carter offered the following trite assessment: “No one can completely understand the motivations of the North Koreans.”

As less credulous others have pointed out, Pyongyang’s game is a rather transparent case of “nuclear blackmail.” A proper understanding of this type of chronic extortion could lead to a better grasp of the ways of other rogue regimes, such as Syria, and how best to deal with them.

The US has been involved in an embarrassing failed endeavor to get the North Koreans to denuclearize. The regime in Pyongyang has notoriously played the world for fools and has mastered the art of nuclear blackmail, using talks over its nuclear program as a shakedown racket to extract aid from its interlocutors.

At the same time, not only does Kim Jong-Il renege on his commitments, he also proceeds to sell banned nuclear and ballistic technology to other rogue states, including Iran and Syria. The latter’s secret nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel in September 2007, was built with the North Koreans’ help. Secure in the conviction that he will not face serious retaliation, Kim continues to stick his thumb in the world’s eye.

Some analysts have understandably focused on these developments’ implications for the ongoing standoff with Tehran and what it means for the future, should Iran achieve breakout capability. However, Pyongyang’s actions, at their core, also mirror Syrian behavior, namely, the regime’s support and sponsorship of terrorist and militant groups – a fact which, remarkably, appears to escape observers and policy makers alike.

Jimmy Carter’s remark about North Korea was echoed not long ago by an anonymous US official who voiced similar befuddlement vis-à-vis Syria.

“We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does,” the official told Foreign Policy magazine in April.

The established approach to Syria’s relationship with radical groups has been governed by the premise that all of Damascus’ alliances are driven by a single preoccupation: retrieving the Golan Heights from Israel. This makes the resolution of the conflict a rather straightforward transaction: offering the Syrians what they want will result in the termination of their unsavory alliances and destructive behavior. Similar to what Jimmy Carter wrote about North Korea's new centrifuges, Syria's ties to militant groups are assumed to be “on the table.”

The US continues to conceptualize the problem along those lines, which is why we always hear Western officials asserting that what Syria’s president Bashar Assad “really” wants is to align with the West, as that would be the path to prosperity for the Syrian people. Somehow it is lost on these officials that for the last four years, as a result of a series of devastating droughts, hundreds of thousands of people from eastern Syria have been forced to abandon their villages, are severely impoverished and are facing malnourishment. The Assad regime, meanwhile, has been busy stepping up transfers of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and setting up logistical bases for the Shia group in Syria.

As with Pyongyang, Damascus’ calculations and priorities are clearly very different from what Western officials presume. What matters for the Syrian regime is pursuing the policies that best fit its self-image, one of the primary “key player” in the region – if not the nexus of the “five seas,” as Assad is fond of saying.

Just as the nuclear shakedown and the sale of nuclear and ballistic technologies are North Korea’s only currency, so too does support for extremist groups constitute Syria’s only asset in its quest to actualize the role it envisions itself playing, both with respect to its interaction with the West, as well as its maneuvering with regional, especially Arab, rivals. It is these alliances that afford Syria the ability to project power – or at least the illusion thereof – beyond its actual weight.

As such, the entire conceptualization of the negotiation process with states such as Syria and North Korea becomes problematic. For the West, negotiations are a means to the definite end of a one-time, quid pro quo transaction that will result, in Syria’s case, in the cessation of support for militant groups once and for all in return for redressing a particular grievance.  The Syrians meanwhile have made it clear that their view is radically different. As one official told the International Crisis Group in a January 2009 interview, “They [the Americans] talk to us when it is a question of cutting ties with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But if we do, will they carry on speaking to us?”

To expect the Syrians to abandon their only access to relevance is to engage in fantasy. If decades of failure with the Syrians have not been enough to drive this point home, perhaps watching the ongoing North Korean extortion racket might help. But then again, don’t hold your breath.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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