TSG IntelBrief: Dual Tipping Points in Syria and North Korea
April 5, 2017

Dual Tipping Points in Syria and North Korea


Bottom Line Up Front:

• On April 4, two events occurred that represented challenges to the international community by rogue regimes; Syria launched a gas attack against civilians and North Korea conducted a ballistic missile launch.

• These two incidents—one a heinous war crime—highlight the persistent inability of the international community to deter unacceptable behavior by states not bound by basic concerns for global norms or human rights.

• The suspected sarin gas attack in Idlib, Syria killed at least 69 people, and is the latest war crime involving chemical weapons perpetrated by the Assad regime.

• The North Korean missile launch represented another important advancement in the development of a delivery system for North Korea’s existing nuclear arsenal.


Both Syria and North Korea have long demonstrated a disregard for human rights and international law. While the situations in Syria and North Korea differ significantly, the inability of the international community to temper the belligerence of either is a common trend. For more than six decades, the diplomatic track in North Korea has been to avoid another catastrophic war on the Korean peninsula. While efforts to avoid another armed conflict have been successful, the pattern of sporadic dialogue and deals has occurred in tandem with North Korea’s persistent march towards deliverable nuclear weapons, creating an untenable situation with no clear resolution. 

In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has continued to show complete disregard for the norms of international law. The Assad regime’s repeated use of banned chemical weapons to murder its own citizens has demonstrated Assad’s total lack of fear of repercussions by the international community. On April 4, the Assad regime launched a suspected sarin gas attack against the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib. At least 69 people were killed, including many children; the death toll is likely to increase. The atrocity marked the Assad regime’s most deadly war crime involving chemical weapons since the August 2013 massacre in a Damascus suburb that—according to a U.S. intelligence assessment—killed 1,429 people, also involving sarin.

The global response to the latest war crime committed by the Assad regime has been similar to those in the past. Britain, France, and the U.S. have called for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the attack; it is likely Russia would veto any such statement. Time and again, Russia has shown it will go farther in protecting its interests in Syria and the region than the U.S., Britain, or France will go in protecting civilians and enforcing international law. With no good options—and the very real risk of direct confrontation with Russia—the U.S. and other Western powers have been consistently unwilling to dramatically intervene militarily against the Assad regime. The frustrating reality is that the existing international construct for conflict resolution has completely failed in Syria, as it has elsewhere. The result has been the endless suffering of the Syrian people, who must deal with the international community’s failure in a daily and direct fashion.

Similarly, North Korea has proven to be immune to the international responses to its continued antagonisms, which have included condemnation and serious sanctions. As in Syria, the West has few options for acting decisively without kicking off a war. Though China has long be North Korea’s prime benefactor, the Chinese have begun to show signs that the status quo of North Korean saber-rattling is rapidly becoming unacceptable—as those sabers are now ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. Every successful ballistic missile test moves North Korea closer to having a reliable short notice, medium-range launch capability, which would completely change the situation. North Korea’s April 4 launch of a solid fuel medium-range missile is another step closer to that reality. Thus, in both North Korea and Syria, international strategies to counter aggressive behavior and atrocities must be altered if any different result is to be expected. Global condemnation, no matter how strong, has clearly been proven an entirely ineffective constraint on the belligerent activities of both the Syrian and North Korean regimes.


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