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13 October 2016

Is Boris Johnson ready to make a stand against Russia in Syria?

The foreign secretary has been accused of "Russophobic hysteria" by Moscow.

By David Patrikarakos

No matter what job he has, Boris Johnson, it seems, cannot stop being Boris Johnson. It took only his frontbench debut in the Commons, on 11 October, to cause outrage. This time it was Russia he offended when he suggested it should be investigated for war crimes and, more strikingly, declared that he “would certainly like to see demonstrations outside the Russian embassy” for Moscow’s bombing of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

His words naturally prompted a furious retort from Moscow, which, in traditional style, accused him of “Russophobic hysteria” before adding, in a puzzling display of — if not exactly mixed then odd — metaphors (even by Russian standards) that “the frenzy that has gripped… Boris Johnson, who accuses Russia of committing every deadly sin, is a storm in a teacup full of muddy London water.”

Boris’s statement was odd in several respects — certainly, a foreign secretary calling for demonstrations outside the embassy of a fellow sovereign state is a break from traditional diplomatic protocol. Then there is the fact that he has, on previous occasions, been supportive of Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria, most notably praising his “ruthless clarity” in ousting “maniac” Islamic State jihadists from the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Is it a new, more hawkish Boris we are seeing — one willing to take a moral stand? The answer, as it always is when dealing with him, is more complex. As James Miller, managing editor of The Interpreter, an online magazine dedicated to analyzing Russia’s foreign and domestic policy, observes: “Russia has yet to pay a price on the international stage for its support of Assad and now its direct killing of civilians, first responders, doctors and UN aid workers. There are sanctions against Russia for its involvement in Ukraine, but the international community has not stood up to Putin’s actions in Syria.”

He continues: “But in London, Paris, Rome, and plenty of other Western European capitals there has been plenty of appetite to do business with Russia. Is Johnson really signalling that he wants this to end? That Russia’s destabilizing influence in the foreign policy sphere, particularly in Syria, is worth standing up to? Or that protesters in London are somehow going to change’s Moscow’s calculations on what happens in Aleppo?” 

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The answer to these questions appears to be “no.” Context is important here. Johnson made his remarks during a highly emotive debate, which included calls for further UK action in Syria, specifically a proposal for the government to help instigate a no-fly zone in Syria to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s aerial bombardment that continues to massacre his own people. Boris, however, appeared to rule out such a course of action,  “We cannot commit to a no-fly zone unless we are prepared to confront and perhaps shoot down planes or helicopters that violate that zone,” he said. “We need to think very carefully about the consequences.”

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Assad is backed by both Russia and Iran. Without the support of these two powers he would have fallen years ago. While Iran has its special forces on the ground, Russia has taken the lead in the air. The instigation of a no-fly zone would almost certainly lead to NATO-Russian air clashes. The potential political and military fallout if UK and US warplanes started shooting their Russian counterparts out of the sky is something for which neither London nor Washington has any appetite.

So what’s left? As ever, the answer with Boris, is words. Perhaps his most instructive comment was to enquire, rhetorically, “Where is the Stop the War coalition?” As he knows full well the STW is a left-wing group whose attention is focused on preventing UK military intervention against Syria. It was a classic display of Boris deflecting blame: the only difference being that this time it was in service to his party rather than himself.

It seemed, then, like the perfect opportunity for the opposition to go on the attack against the government, while taking a moral stand in the process: a chance to good to resist, one might have thought.

Alas no such attack emerged from the Labour Party. Indeed, its leader Jeremy Corbyn is a long time patron of the STW and spoke at one of its meetings just days earlier. Instead a party spokesman could only offer: “The focus on Russian atrocities, or Syrian army atrocities, which is absolutely correct, I think sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that have taken place,” he said. 

And in the meantime, the bombs continue to fall on Aleppo and Syrians continue to die in their thousands.