European officials blame a lack of clarity about U.S. and British policy toward Syria for their opposition this week to the imposition of new punitive measures against Russian and Syrian military officials.
The officials say it remains unclear how the sanctions would change Moscow’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who’s been leading the Anglo-American effort, took comfort after the G7 meeting of foreign ministers in the broad recognition secured at the gathering that there’s no solution to the crisis in Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains in power.
He has emphasized targeted sanctions are still on the table, but moving forward with them will have to wait for a full investigation into the alleged April 4 Sarin Gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun.
But European Union officials say unease about the legal basis for a renewed sanctions regime isn’t the only worry of the Germans and the Italians in particular.
“There were two problems at the G7 meeting,” a senior European official told VOA. “One was with the lack of a clear step-by-step proposal for what happens after the imposition of sanctions, the vision of how to get rid of Assad and to persuade the Russians to withdrew its backing of the Syrian leader; and the second was with the salesmen for sanctions.”
Skepticism about Johnson
The Europeans view Johnson with deep skepticism. The colorful former journalist has established a reputation for inconsistency, a reputation that Britain’s Financial Times acknowledged raises “serious questions over his ability to play the world statesman.”
Johnson was pro-EU before becoming a leading campaigner for Britain to break with the European Union, a shift seen as part of a bid for leadership of the ruling Conservative Party.
He has shifted from being a dove when it comes to Russia to a hawk: in 2015 when London mayor he advocated Britain shouldn’t be afraid of “dealing with the devil” and aligning with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad against the Islamic State terror group, but the next year he was urging more sanctions on Moscow. At the start of this year he shifted yet again saying Assad should be allowed to run for re-election.
Europeans see the back-and-forth as a reflection of Britain’s effort to secure a post-Brexit free trade deal with Washington. So do some British critics. “Boris is finding out that a foreign policy based on following the USA quickly becomes contradictory when American policy goes on walkabout,” tweeted Labor politician Stewart Wood.
Tim Farron, the leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, has dubbed Johnson a “poodle of Washington.”
Mixed signals from Washington about Syria policy haven’t reassured America’s European allies, even those who have long favored a tougher approach to Assad. White House spokesman Sean Spicer, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have all cut across each other about the details of what U.S. policy is toward Syria, and European officials fear there’s not an approach combining political and military solutions to the conflict.
Haley has touted the possibility of regime change,” while Tillerson has emphasized the defeat of IS is paramount.
The final communiqué Tuesday night after a two-day meeting of G7 foreign ministers in the Italian town of Lucca made no mention of the Anglo-American bid to isolate Putin and to impose sanctions on Russian and Syrian military figures.
Analysts are raising increasing doubts about next-steps and question whether Assad’s foreign backers, Russia and Iran, are ready to ditch the Syrian leader. The battlefield favors Assad, as it has done for months, thanks to Russian airpower and Iranian-linked Shi’ite militias.
The U.S. Cruise missile strike in response to the Sarin Gas attack cheered rebels and pro-opposition analysts alike, but the follow-up has left them as skeptical as European leaders.
“The U.S. strikes in Syria have already had significant effects, but they still leave the questions of overall Syria strategy hanging,” argued Paul Salem of the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“On the immediate side, the attacks provide a tangible deterrent to future use of banned chemical weapons,” he added. “They have also signaled to America’s friends and foes that this administration is open to taking quick military action. But the reversal of the administration’s own course on Syria, Bashar al-Assad was not seen as a central problem or priority days before the attack, and the inconsistent messaging from administration officials since the strikes have left an air of confusion as to Trump’s future policy on Syria.”