10/04/2017 13:32 BST | Updated 10/04/2017 13:32 BST

A United Response Is Preferable To Opportunistic Criticism Of Boris Johnson

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Last month's Foreign Affairs Committee report on the UK's relations with Russia reported that the relationship between our two countries were at its most strained since the end of the Cold War. 


Recognising that Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria presented the two most urgent challenges, we recommended that the UK should conduct a meaningful and regular political dialogue with the Russian Government in a spirit of 'frankness and honesty' while maintaining the UK's core values. In that spirit, we welcomed the announcement soon after, that Boris Johnson would personally go to Moscow.


Postponing his visit in favour of a meeting of G7 foreign ministers before Secretary Tillerson's heads to Moscow on Wednesday visit, enables a united liberal world response. This is an obvious decision from the perspective of any policy maker interested in effective statecraft.  The criticism of the cancellation of his visit has seen a combination of ill-informed and opportunistic commentary, some of it frankly childish and smacking of desperate attention seeking.


The Foreign Affairs Committee is first in line to call for the UK to take a more active and independent role in world affairs, and to have the resources to do so. But a large part of that role involves working with allies and leveraging the range of our assets in co-ordination. It would be absurd for an inflated sense of self-importance to imperil policy co-ordination with allies. 


The UK has historically been a leader on sanctions and the Foreign Secretary is strongest in exploring the possibility of new sanctions against Russian and Syrian individuals.


It is appropriate for the US to be the first into Moscow in this heightened atmosphere.  The American Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, should be reinforced by a united G7 position, served by his own understanding of how the Putin elite operates and comes with a recent demonstration of the extent of American hard power and a willingness to use it.

The 2013 deal, whereby the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons verified the destruction of 95% of Syria's declared chemical weapons, was negotiated between Russia and the US and either the Russians haven't honoured their side of the deal or they have been betrayed by the Syrians.

The resurfacing of these weapons in 2017 presents the international community, and the US in particular, with a new challenge. This is principally about upholding international norms, whilst also responding to the Russian failure to meet its responsibilities under the 2013 agreement, sending a message to a resurgent Assad and a new administration enforcing its own red lines.

The commentary that President Trump had a change of heart after seeing images of Khan Sheikhoun raises the concern that policy is being developed on gut feelings without careful deliberation. However, proposals of targeted airstrikes in response to specific atrocities have long been discussed and debated.  Officials in the Pentagon and State Department have been planning for this moment for six years. Furthermore, volatility has its own value and deters other parties from pushing limits further. This carefully calibrated action should have radically changed Russian and Syrian calculations of the costs and benefits of wanton disregard for human life.

Within Assad's coalition there is a struggle between maximalists who think that his counter-revolution should continue until they have reclaimed every inch of Syria, necessitating ever-increasingly brute force to bludgeon their way across the line, and those who support either an accommodation with certain opposition groups or limiting their ambitions to holding "useful Syria". Trump has shown that there are limits to how brutal the maximalists can afford to be.

Every US signal indicates that this action was and will be limited in its scope, which mitigates the risks of grave miscalculation by the Russians and Syrians. The Americans gave prior notice and Rex Tillerson has also been clear in his warning to observers that US policy has not fundamentally changed.

However much the attack was a departure from the Syria playbook, the problems of larger western intervention and establishing no-fly zones or safe zones still stand. Undoubtedly wider debates around civilian protection will open. 

In 2013 I voted against military intervention in Syria. The consequences and responsibilities that would have placed on us still persuades me that I made the right judgement. The debates of that summer were plagued by strategic confusion.  The conflict itself was at an earlier and more volatile stage; there was a distinct possibility of the opposition militarily defeating the Assad Government. Regime change was very much still the order of the day in western capitals.

Unlike the shambolic process of the vote in 2013, further involvement by the UK should be preceded by the Government properly engaging Parliament and clearly setting out its agenda, objectives, and strategy. David Cameron's success in bringing Parliament with him in the 2015 vote on targeting ISIS should be the model.

A political settlement negotiated between the parties and supported by the international community is undoubtedly still the priority. We need to return to the November 2015 International Syria Support Group agreement as the basis for that negotiation to end this civil war and its accompanying horrors of displacement death and the ISIS insurgency.

Crispin Blunt is the Conservative MP for Reigate and chair of the foreign affairs select committee