Boris Johnson’s Position on Syria Is a Problem for the UK

Newly appointed British Prime Minister Theresa May has moved quickly to announce Boris Johnson as her foreign secretary. As recently as two weeks ago, Johnson was seen as a leading contender for her job. Now he is to be the face of the UK government’s foreign policy. His appointment is likely to divide opinion, not least due to his penchant for bold statements and controversial positions. His position on Syria will challenge the UK’s credibility in the Middle East.

An article written by Johnson in December 2015 advocated that ‘Britain should do a deal with the Devil: we [Britain] should work with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Syria’ to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).’ This puts Johnson publically at odds with the UK government’s position, which has been steadfast in its opposition of Assad and of the suggestion that he might play any role in a post-settlement Syria. Britain has thus far justifiably identified Assad as the primary cause of Syria’s descent into chaos and rejected the arguments of his regime’s international supporters that he is the only credible force that can defeat ISIS on the battlefield. Given Johnson’s dissenting view, questions immediately arise: Will Johnson recant his view? Is the UK government about to change its policy on Syria?

The reality may be something in between if the foreign secretary elects to obfuscate and roll back on some of his comments, but if he does reverse his position, Johnson will immediately enter his role with question marks over his credibility. On the other hand, retracting his position on Assad would appease the concerns of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that are strong supporters of the Syrian opposition and that would be hostile to a policy seen as accommodating to Assad.

Coming around to the Russian view?

Were the UK to change its position on Syria, the UK would break with leading Western nations over Syria policy, most notably the US. While Britain is by no means a decisive actor in the Syrian conflict, it is a significant one. Johnson’s appointment is likely to concern the Syrian opposition, whose list of friends is small and diminishing. Rumours already abound that the US is considering cooperating with Russia over operations targeting ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. Such rumours are seen in the context of a softening US position on Assad following the breakdown of the Geneva process and the failure of the US to enforce a cessation of hostilities or to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. There is a perception that America’s trajectory is set on an inevitable path towards cooperation with Putin, and, by extension, Assad.

The appointment of a British foreign secretary who has publically endorsed such a position will heighten those fears among opposition circles and embolden the regime. Johnson’s declaration that the regime’s recent recapture of Palmyra was a ‘victory for archaeology’ is hardly likely to dampen those fears. Earlier this year US officials were believed to have privately expressed their frustrations at the UK’s resistance to any US negotiations with the Russians. It is harder to see a UK government performing such a role under Johnson’s leadership.

Where does the prime minister stand?

Theresa May is primarily known for her domestic positions, and her tough stance on immigration as home secretary in particular. She was criticized for introducing a 'compassion quota' for proposing that greater numbers of refugees would only be resettled in Britain if fewer people claimed asylum and she has resisted calls for greater numbers of Syrian refugees to be admitted to the UK. But her views on the Syrian conflict are more difficult to discern. May voted in favour of airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and does not appear to have made any statements that would suggest a change in UK policy.

Given the scale of the challenges that May faces over negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, safeguarding the economy and unifying her party, a major shift in UK foreign policy towards Syria seems unlikely. Yet, her selection of Johnson will raise questions in the Middle East over her true position, and her judgement.

Tim Eaton is project manager for Middle East and North Africa Programme’s Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative, which aims to support a coordinated and holistic policy response to the conflict in Syria.

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