Defense chiefs from Southeast Asian nations agree with White House concerns that a failure to punish Bashar Assad for reportedly conducting a chemical attack will give license to other world leaders to do the same, according to Pentagon officials.
Syria has shared information with North Korea about nuclear technology, and likely also about chemical weapons, said Defense Department spokesman George Little on Thursday. If the U.S. and other allied nations fail to conduct a military strike in Syria, other nation-states such as North Korea, Iran or Hezbollah in Lebanon may also conduct chemical attacks, he says.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel toured Southeast Asia last week. Many of the nations he visited voiced concerns regarding the instability in the Middle East. Those with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Indonesia, were particularly worried about how that could affect Muslim countries elsewhere, as well as their unpredictable Asian neighbors.
"Everyone expressed with abhorrence this terrible use of chemical weapons against some in the population," said Peter Lavoy, assistant secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. "In addition to that expression of abhorrence, there were concerns about the implication for North Korean behavior."
He did not specify whether their concerns were regarding the existing military crisis in Syria following a reported Aug. 21 chemical attack, or further instability voiced among critics of the U.S. taking military action in response.
Hagel visited Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines during his trip and attended the Defence Ministers Meeting through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Attendees included all ASEAN nations along with eight other regional powers such as Australia, China and Japan.
The Philippines expressed particular fears for Syria, where they have sent as many as 9,000 citizens for work. Roughly 1,000 have not yet been able to escape, Lavoy said.
"There are some concerns about where growing instability in the Middle East would lead, and whether it would have reverberations in the Muslim communities in these countries," he added.
When asked to clarify whether uniform concern included the Chinese delegates, also in attendance at the meetings, Lavoy said there were no dissenting opinions during the open- and closed-door discussions.