Boris Johnson, Britain’s well-known journalist and occasional foreign minister, has written a curious article for the Daily Telegraph, which exposes both the bankruptcy of the West’s thinking about the crisis in Syria, and the West’s lack of any truly strong cards to play in that crisis.
The article begins with the important admission that President Assad is winning the war in Syria
Let us face the truth: Assad has been clinging on. With the help of Russians and Iranians, and by dint of unrelenting savagery, he has not only recaptured Aleppo. He has also won back most of “operational” Syria.
Johnson then admits that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun and the subsequent US missile strike have changed nothing about this situation, and that they will not lead to a US intervention in Syria
The brute facts of the strategic position, alas, are much as they were 10 days ago (ie. before the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack – AM). Yes, America has struck and could of course strike again. That alone creates an ambiguity that should prey on the guilty minds of Damascus. But we all know that we are a very long day’s march from any large-scale deployment, any major western engagement in Syria.
The lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are painful, and they understandably affect politicians and the public on both sides of the Atlantic.
Nonetheless Johnson continues to say that President Assad remaining in power is “unacceptable” and that he must be removed from office. As to how it is to be done when the West can’t do it, the answer is the same as always: Russia must do it
…..we need to show the Russians the horrific nature of the regime they are backing in terms they cannot fail to understand. This is, in fact, an opportunity for Russia. Moscow has reached the high point of its influence in Syria. They still have innumerable rebel groups to subdue, and they find themselves in a league of supervillains with Hizbollah and Assad. Is that what they want?
In exchange they should commit to produce a real ceasefire, to end the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and to bring about a political settlement that relieves the Syrians of the tyranny of Assad.
The Russians saved him. The Russians can help remove him, through a carefully supervised transition process that preserves key institutions of state – and usher in a stable and pluralist future for the country…..
He is literally and metaphorically toxic, and it is time Russia awoke to that fact. They still have time to be on the right side of the argument.
This is the same proposal – that Russia ditch President Assad in return for a junior place in the US’s anti-ISIS coalition – which the Obama administration made to Russia in July 2016, and which the Russians then rejected at a time when President Assad’s and their own military position in Syria were significantly weaker than they are now. This is how I reported it then
……it seems that the US offered to join with the Russians in a joint military campaign in Syria against Al Qaeda and Daesh. Prior to going to Moscow Kerry also let slip that some of what he called “subgroups” affiliated to Al Qaeda would be targeted as well. However in return the Russians were apparently expected to accept US leadership of the military campaign, cease bombing rebel groups in Syria aligned with the US, and agree to the eventual removal of President Assad.
I said at the time that the Russians would have no hesitation rejecting such an offer
If that is in outline what Kerry was proposing then it is not difficult to see why the Russians would reject it. Essentially what Kerry seems to have offered them was yet another plan to overthrow President Assad, this time with their assistance, in return for a place in a US led military coalition.
Assuming that that was the offer – and all the indications are that it was – then it provides a further example of the US’s inability to adjust to the reality of the Russia it is now dealing with. What the US offered Russia was essentially nothing more than a symbolic gesture in return for the sacrifice of Russia’s entire position in Syria. The days are long past when the Russians were prepared to sacrifice fundamental positions in return for symbolic gestures. It is the sort of offer a Gorbachev or a Yeltsin might have accepted. With Putin it stood no chance. It is perplexing the US has still not grasped the point.
A few days later, when it was confirmed that the Russians had rejected this offer, I said this
In truth the story of the diplomacy of the Syrian conflict has been a continuous repetition of the same happening: the US pushes the Russians to agree to have President Assad removed. The US make various offers or threats to the Russians to buy or force their agreement. The Russians respond that President Assad’s future is a strictly Syrian internal matter, which they will not involve themselves in. The US walks away, baffled and angry.
The same thing happens again and again, Kerry’s talks in Moscow with Putin and Lavrov being just the latest example.
The US are not the only ones to have made the same pitch to the Russians only to get the same result. In July 2013 the head of Saudi intelligence Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud flew secretly to Moscow where he also made various offers and threats at a private meeting with Putin to get the Russians to agree to the removal of President Assad. To his bafflement and anger the Russians said no – as they always do.
In truth the inability of the US and its Western and Arab allies to accept that Russian opposition to their regime policy in Syria and elsewhere is for real, and that the Russians cannot be bullied or bribed to change it, is one of the oddest things about the whole Syrian conflict. Despite the fact the Russians have gone repeatedly out of their way to explain their policy, the US and its allies seem incapable of believing that the Russians are really serious about it. They always seem to think that the Russians are really just playing some cynical game, and that if they are made the right sort of offer, or put under the right sort of pressure, they can be brought round and made to agree to let Assad go.
By now – five years after the conflict began – it ought to be obvious that that isn’t going to happen. Kerry’s trip to Moscow and the long hours of fruitless negotiations he had there however shows that the US still can’t bring itself to accept the fact.
It is sad but entirely predictable that the clownish Boris Johnson is still unable to accept this fact, so that he is still floating a plan the Russians rejected 9 months ago, and variants of which they have been repeatedly rejecting ever since the Syrian crisis began in 2011.
The Russians will of course again reject this proposal now that Boris Johnson is re-floating it. As he all but admits, nothing has changed to induce the Russians to accept a proposal they rejected 9 months ago, when their position was weaker.
The fact Boris Johnson is unable to come up with anything better however shows that he knows that for all the threats and bluster the US and the West cannot remove President Assad from power unless the Russians agree, and that the US and the West have nothing to offer or threaten the Russians with which would make them agree.