Robert Harneis – TDO – (FRANCE) Foreign secretary Boris Johnson failed to convince the G7 to impose more sanctions on Russia over the alleged Syrian government poison gas attack. Neither Italy nor Germany was prepared to go along with the idea. At the same time, it would be a mistake to think that he did not achieve any of his aims. True fellow members declined to follow his suggestion but what matters is that Britain is re-establishing itself in its former inglorious role as the United States’ closest ally, prepared to do whatever is necessary to curry favor with Washington.
Ever since the historic night on 29 August 2013 when the House of Commons rebelled and voted down a government motion permitting an attack on Syria, US-UK relations have not been the same. It was the first time since 1782 that a government motion to go to war had been defeated. The justification for war then, as today, was an alleged poison gas attack that a majority of members did not find credible. As a leading backbencher put it ‘no one doubts that Assad is bad enough to do it but is he mad enough?’ In other words, why would he take the risk for no benefit? This weakened Britain in the eyes of the US government and revealed that there was no guarantee that the British government could deliver on any promise to back US military actions in the future.
France, on the other hand, was rearing to go with its planes standing ready on the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, waiting to take off and bomb Syrian government forces. Then the French government took the opportunity to point out to the Americans that under the French constitution the President can go to war and parliament does not have to be consulted. France was thus a better junior partner than Britain. Today, the latest Syria crisis has arisen whilst the French government has been largely paralyzed by a particularly destructive presidential election campaign and Britain has not been slow to move back into to the space left empty.
This time the US did not make the mistake of waiting for its allies to come on board with military action as 2013 but just went ahead alone. This made Britain’s position easier. Britain was foremost in the UN Security Council in condemning the Syrian government in the wildest terms for the poison gas attack. The fact that there is no evidence that there ever was a poison gas attack is of no concern to the British Foreign Office. That is not the point and it is of course not necessary for the government to get parliamentary approval to attack the Syrian government in the UNSC, whatever members of parliament may think. France and Italy also vigorously backed the Americans in condemning the Syrian government.
However, when it comes to sanctions against Russia, it is no longer a question of empty words, money talks. Germany and Italy are suffering severely from the existing sanctions and both governments face elections. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert issued the following statement on behalf of Angela Merkel after the G7 meeting. The statement said,
“The Chancellor (Angela Merkel) stressed that after the clear reaction of the US towards the awful incident with the usage of chemical weapons there is the need to do everything to continue political settlement under the UN auspices. At the same time, cooperation with Russia has special importance for launching transitional political process”.
Many German business leaders are opposed to any sanctions, let alone more. The latest trade figuresfor 2016 show, for the first time ever, Russia imported more machinery from China than from Germany. This is directly attributable to existing sanctions.
Britain on the other hand, like the US, is largely unaffected by sanctions and is perfectly happy to use the issue to win back US confidence and re-establish the old close relationship. This is all the more necessary as Brexit takes effect. The British government is concerned to avoid isolation in a troubled world.
Boris Johnson did not get his sanctions, and may not even have expected to get them, but the current Syrian crisis has enabled the British Foreign Office to demonstrate that the special relationship is back to business as usual.