Was Boris Johnson’s presence in the G7 meeting a complete flop? Speaking to several television networks, before the G7 meeting in Italy, Johnson said that he sees an opportunity to impose new sanctions against Bashar Al-Assad for using chemical weapons in the rebel-held Khan Sheikhun village. The failure of Russia to condemn this action was also put in Johnson’s sights.
A few days before the meeting in the Italian city of Lucca, Johnson had cancelled a scheduled visit to Moscow, which would be the first since 2012. The trip was cancelled just after the US missile attack on the Shayrat airbase, which marked the first direct US intervention against the Assad’s regime forces. The British foreign minister said, in reference to the cancellation, that “we deplore Russia’s continued defense of the Assad regime, even after the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. We call on Russia to do everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria. My priority is now to continue contact with the US and others in the run-up to the G7 meeting to build coordinated effort for a ceasefire and a political process.”
Russia responded immediately in an official statement that said: “the UK doesn’t have its own position in the majority of present day issues, nor it does have real influence on the course of international affairs.” Even if the statement’s rhetoric was a bit harsh for diplomatic standards, the general stance of Russia should have been anticipated. What wasn’t expected was the backlash from various British politicians who were against Johnson. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, called Boris Johnson a “poodle of Washington”, accusing him of stepping back before Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia.
Shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, called the cancellation a mistake. McDonnell said that “we shouldn’t just allow the Americans to go off and do that-we should be doing it ourselves.” Alex Salmond, known for his verbal attacks against Johnson, said that he looks “daft”. Salmond commented that he didn’t agree with cancelling the visit as the US Secretary of State would not be cancelling his own.
A smiling Boris Johnson, arrived at the G7 meeting, feeling confident that he would be able to convince his fellow foreign ministers on imposing sanctions against Syria and Russia. With Russia having been expelled from the G8 in 2014, due to the annexation of Crimea, this looked like an easy task for the British foreign minister. Boris Johnson was also counting on Tillerson’s will to press the Russian side to abandon the Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.
Unfortunately for Johnson, the G7 meeting turned into a nightmare for him. Despite his confidence, the rest of the ministers didn’t share his vision. Angelino Alfano, the Italian foreign minister, said that “we must have a dialogue with Russia and we must not push them into a corner. There is no consensus on additional new sanctions as an efficient instrument to deliver the goal we are aiming for.”
Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, told journalists that the issue of sanctions wasn’t mentioned by anyone, except the British foreign minister, and there were no further discussions on it. The German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, stressed the need for Russia and Iran to be a part of the Syrian peace process. Officially, Downing Street insisted that Johnson had secured important agreements and established that Assad can’t be a part of a future Syria.
British newspapers wrote that Downing Street is unhappy with Johnson’s performance. The Telegraph states, based on No10 sources, that “Johnson failed to do his homework. Everything was done without preparatory work. For example, it wasn’t particularly surprising that Germany didn’t agree with sanctions because it is sensitive over its energy supply from Russia. The lack of preparation has come back and bitten us.”
One could think that Theresa May left her fierce rival for the Tory leadership to be humiliated, during the last days. Johnson failed to acknowledge that his talent for making remarks doesn’t replace his duty to anticipate other countries’ diplomatic moves and stances. Imposing sanctions on Russia, which was his main target, would mean additional economic losses for all G7 countries that no one of them would like to suffer from. Lastly, he made the UK look like a follower of Trump’s administration strategy and more importantly, an unprepared one. In Britain, Johnson just made May feel stronger.