Boris Johnson’s view on how to achieve peace in Syria has never wavered and his latest speech is stronger than ever. He has held this view since 2016, and below, in the Sunday Telegraph today, he explains exactly he believes this is the way forward.
Boris begins: “It is in some ways bizarre that Bashar al-Assad should be so reckless. It seems mystifying that he should now raise the stakes by so blatantly murdering so many of his own people with chemical weapons. Indeed, there is a sense in which it would frankly be more convenient for the outside world to pretend that it did not happen.
Let us face the truth: Assad has been clinging on. With the help of Russians and Iranians, and by dint of unrelenting savagery, he has not only recaptured Aleppo. He has also won back most of “operational” Syria. And so, before the chemical weapons attack on April 4, the West was on the verge of a grim consensus – that it would be more sensible to concentrate on the fight against the terrorists of Daesh, and to accept reluctantly that removing Assad – though ultimately essential – should await a drawn-out political solution. And then came the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
I have studied with care the dark fountain of propaganda about this event, much of it spewed by Russia Today and associated media. These mouthpieces claim the Syrian air force hit a rebel cache of chemical weapons – whether accidentally or on purpose – and that the civilians were killed in the dispersal of vapours. The trouble with this version is that it just cannot be made to fit the demonstrable facts.
Technical evidence shows that two Syrian Su-22 planes were in the air over the town at the time of the strike, at 6.39am. They took off from an airbase where chemical weapons have been stored. All eyewitness accounts say the same thing: that a shell landed in the street, making a small crater. There was no damage to any weapons stores, because there were no weapons stores. There was a barn nearby that contained some manure and a dead goat – killed by poison gas.
That same gas killed upwards of 70 people, and you will have seen the pictures of children dead or dying, struggling to breathe and frothing at the mouth. British scientists have analysed samples from the victims of the attack. These have tested positive for sarin or a sarin-like substance. The UK, the US and all our key allies are of one mind: we believe that this was highly likely to be an attack by Assad, on his own people, using poison gas weapons that were banned almost 100 years ago, under the 1925 Geneva protocol.
In view of this horrific evidence, the world last week once again had a choice, just as we did after the gas attack at Ghouta in 2013. Did we turn a blind eye? Or could we somehow respond, and show our feeling – that Assad had done something that was not only uniquely vile, but which we in the West would not tolerate?
I am glad that President Trump chose to act. Those cruise missiles cannot bring those children back to life. But in exacting reprisals against the al-Shayrat airfield – from which it is highly likely the deadly mission was launched – the president’s actions were timely, appropriate and essential.
They were essential because Assad learnt something from the experience of Ghouta in 2013. He learnt that he could get away with it. He learnt that he could cross the “red lines” of the West with impunity. And that, of course, explains the mystery with which we began.
That is why Assad launched his sickening strikes, on April 4, with what looks like such insouciance. He thought that he could simply get away with it again, and that his actions would be lost in the general fatigue over Syria. He allowed his air force to use poison gas because he has contempt for his own people, and because he no longer believes in the willingness of the world to stand up to him.
I hope and believe he has miscalculated. He certainly misunderstood Donald Trump. He has also underestimated the global repulsion that his actions have caused. He can issue his absurd and mendacious denials, but he is once again exposed for what he is: a man who leads a regime of vicious and unredeemed cruelty.
The question therefore is what we can actually do now; to what extent we can harness the momentum of the US strike to change the dynamics in Syria, to push for a political solution, and to relieve the people of that country of their misery. Of course we do not underestimate the challenge.
The brute facts of the strategic position, alas, are much as they were 10 days ago. Yes, America has struck and could of course strike again. That alone creates an ambiguity that should prey on the guilty minds of Damascus. But we all know that we are a very long day’s march from any large-scale deployment, any major western engagement in Syria.
The lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are painful, and they understandably affect politicians and the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Which means that we should instead focus relentlessly on the reality of what Assad has done: killed innocents with a banned and abominable weapon.
We should follow all the logical imperatives of that massacre. First we should gather all the evidence at Khan Sheikhoun. Then we must use it to make the case first for personal sanctions and then for war crimes prosecutions for those responsible.
Above all, though, we need to show the Russians the horrific nature of the regime they are backing in terms they cannot fail to understand. This is, in fact, an opportunity for Russia. Moscow has reached the high point of its influence in Syria. They still have innumerable rebel groups to subdue, and they find themselves in a league of supervillains with Hizbollah and Assad. Is that what they want?
Now is surely the moment for them to make a sensible compromise – to join a coalition of more than 60 countries in the fight against Daesh, to maintain their strategic interests in Syria, with the prospect of more productive relations with President Trump and in the knowledge that the West will eventually help rebuild the country.
In exchange they should commit to produce a real ceasefire, to end the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and to bring about a political settlement that relieves the Syrians of the tyranny of Assad.
The Russians saved him. The Russians can help remove him, through a carefully supervised transition process that preserves key institutions of state – and usher in a stable and pluralist future for the country.
Assad uses chemical weapons because they are not only horrible and indiscriminate. They are also terrifying. In that sense he is himself an arch-terrorist, who has caused such an unquenchable thirst for revenge that he can never hope to govern his population again.
He is literally and metaphorically toxic, and it is time Russia awoke to that fact. They still have time to be on the right side of the argument.”