What does the war in Syria have in common with the stand-off in North Korea? All the leaders involved in the conflict use missiles as a diplomatic tool to boast of their country’s strength, and to send political messages.

In a speech before the United Nations on Tuesday, President Trump branded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “rocket man,” borrowing a term from an John Elton song. 

However, Trump, is also a rocket man.  So is Vladimir Putin. They all use “rockets,” or more specifically cruise and ballistic missiles to send political message to their rival “rocket men.” 

Within the span of three months, from April 2017 to June 2017, the US, Iran, and Russia have all lobbed missiles over the skies of Syria, not for tactical military reasons, but to send symbolic political messages to their rivals, a form of “missile diplomacy”.

While far away from the Middle East, North Korea’s missile tests are connected to the region, as they're part of a 21st century global trend. 

Missiles are not just military weapons, but tools to achieve a political objective in conflicts where war has not been officially declared. Like drones, they are unmanned weapons. Whereas drones, some of which are operated by the CIA, fly in the shadows, these missile tests are meant to generate media attention - a public proclamation of each state’s political weight. 

America’s Rocket Diplomat 

In April this year, Trump launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base in the Homs province, the purported site of where the nerve agent sarin was loaded onto airplanes that attacked a village in the rebel-held Idlib province.  

The purpose of the attack was not to destroy the site, per se. Advanced warning had been given to Russia—and thus the Syrians—that the missiles would be launched, and it was evacuated before hand.  

First, the attacks were political as it delivered a symbolic message to the international community that the US would take concrete action to discipline a country that violates the norm of WMD use.  

Second, Trump authorised this attack to ostensibly demonstrate that he took a harder line against Syria, unlike his predecessor Barrack Obama. Trump’s actions represented the first time the US attacked Assad’s forces since the civil war began six years ago. 

However, Trump’s missile attack only prodded other actors in the Syrian civil war to conduct their own missile diplomacy.

Iran’s Rocket Diplomacy

In retaliation to an ISIS (Daesh) attack in Tehran, on 18 June, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launched six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles, with a range of around 700km, against ISIS targets in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

While the target may have been ISIS, the strike sent diplomatic signals to players both in the region and internationally. 

First, it sent a message to Riyadh in the aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statement that Saudi Arabia would take its “battle” with the Islamic Republic inside of Iranian territory – a statement which preceded the ISIS attack in Tehran.

Second, it sent a message to the US, which had earlier shot down a Syrian government warplane, that Iran also has missiles to defend its ally in Damascus. 

Third, while the US had imposed sanctions on Iran for its missile program, the Islamic Republic had used those missiles to target ISIS, an enemy of Washington as well.  From Tehran’s perspective, the missile attack sent a rebuke to Trump, demonstrating Iran’s arsenal is being used to target a common foe. 

Russia’s Rocket Trail

Just a few days after the Iranian missile launch, on 23 June, Russia launched long-range Kalibr cruise missiles from one of its naval vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, also against ISIS targets. 

There are Russian planes stationed in Syria, and deploying those aircraft would have been more accurate and effective in targeting ISIS, not to mention cheaper than using costly cruise missiles. 

However, for Russian president Vladimir Putin, an air raid would not deliver the same political message. The range of the cruise missiles demonstrated to the US and the West of advances in Russian military technology, more likely related to Moscow’s tensions over Ukraine and NATO’s presence in the Baltic states. 

Among the US, Iran, and Russia, missiles have become tools in an ongoing process of diplomacy between these three actors to negotiate an end to the Syria conflict, plus Russia’s desire of an advantageous deal over Ukraine. 

But what deal is North Korea seeking? 

North Korea Blasts Off  

Last week, North Korea launched another missile over Hokkaido island, the second to fly over Japanese territory since 29 August. This test basically set the agenda at the UN General Assembly meeting this week. It forced Trump to acknowledge the North Korean threat, essentially dictating terms to the world’s most powerful country, shifting the global conversation to Kim Jong Un’s terms

Most recently in response to Donald Trump's announcement of fresh sanctions, North Korea's foreign minister issued a threat saying the DPRK is considering a hydrogen bomb test of "unprecedented scale" over the Pacific Ocean. 

Korea’s missiles ultimately serve a political objective, forcing China, Russia, and the US to focus on the Korean Peninsula, and to compel the US to reduce its military presence there.

While Trump ridiculed Kim Jong Un as a Rocket Man, North Korea’s leader has proven adept at playing a militarized-diplomatic game that emerged in Syria. 

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