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12 April 2017

The real reason Boris Johnson’s Russia sanctions plan failed

As long as the US lacks a plan to end the Syria conflict, other European countries will stay on the sidelines.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson once quipped that his most-frequent intro as Brussels correspondent at the Telegraph was “Britain stood alone”, but it’s less pleasant reading once you’re Foreign Secretary.

The Foreign Secretary’s attempt to secure support for further sanctions against the Kremlin foundered at the G7. mourns the Times. “Johnson loses fight for Russia ultimatum” sighs the i. wails the Telegraph.

The knives are out for Boris. One minister tells the Times that the rebuff is “a humiliation” for Britain, while, as Sam Coates reports, everything from the composition of Johnson’s travelling squad to his working style is under the microscope.

It’s true that Johnson’s habit of making quips, particularly World War-themed ones, isn’t serving him well as on the European stage. It’s also true that the Foreign Secretary raised expectations at home about what could be accomplished at the G7. But the reason why there was no support to be found for further sanctions isn’t primarily about Johnson or even about Britain. It’s about the United States of America.

As one London-based diplomat put it to me yesterday, while Theresa May has bought into the idea that Donald Trump is a normal President, her European counterparts certainly haven’t. They believe that Trump will either grow frustrated and escalate the scale of conflict or grow frustrated and walk away. In either case, why take the risk?

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Seen from Europe, Britain’s rapid mothballing of Theresa May’s attempt to ease tensions with Russia has risked a great deal on Trump’s continuing change of heart as far as Syria and the Kremlin are concerned. As that U-turn seems to have been inspired by a) something he saw on TV and b) something his daughter Ivanka saw on TV, it may be that decision ages badly and rapidly.

The sense that the United States has got into this without a plan or much grip on the problem is only highlighted by the performances of its press secretary, Sean Spicer and its Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson.

Attempting to lay out the case against Bashar al-Assad, Spicer suggested that Adolf Hitler didn’t use “gas on his own people”, revealing a troubling attitude to either history, German Jews or both. More importantly in the corridors of power, it doesn’t scream that this administration is taking the situation seriously or soberly.

Separately, Rex Tillerson says that Bashar al-Assad’s time at the top in Syria is “coming to an end”, a remark that can only invite the response “Uh, is it?” The question that Russia wants answered: if not Assad, who?

The non-negotiable for the Kremlin is that whatever haveppens, they retain access to their warm water port in Tarsus. That obviously eliminates the self-styled Islamic State from the list of possible alternatives even if that were acceptable to anyone else. But it can’t be a Libya style situation, where the country currently has three-and-a-bit governments, none of which can govern effectively.

And while the United States can’t answer the “if not Assad, who?” question, Vladimir Putin will stick with Assad – and the rest of the G7 will stay out it. And that doesn’t have anything to do with Johnson’s diplomatic skills.