Boris Johnson’s Middle East policy problems

Note to Boris: Pay attention to the Middle East.

Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz (photo credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)
Oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz
The next UK prime minister already has a full plate of problems in the Middle East, even as he must address numerous issues at home and in Europe.
Boris Johnson will be wading into a tight schedule to address London’s attempt to leave the European Union, but he also faces a tanker crisis in the Straits of Hormuz and issues in Syria.
Iran’s Press TV celebrated on Tuesday the country’s seizing of a UK ship, the oil tanker Stena Impero, arguing that it was “justice two centuries in the making.” This is an attempt to humiliate London at an opportune time because the UK is in the middle of its own political changes and struggling to fulfill Brexit.
Tehran is gambling that the new Johnson government will not want to engage in any kind of conflict in the Middle East with Iran, or even raise tensions, while putting together a plan at home.
The crisis emerged from the US leaving the Iran Deal in 2018, upping sanctions on Iran and asserting that Iran is threatening US allies in the region. The UK is a key US ally. Earlier this month, British Royal Marines took control of a tanker accused of bringing Iranian oil to Syria. Iran said it would retaliate and it did, taking over a British-flagged tanker.
The UK has sent the HMS Duncan to join the HMS Montrose, but they have also dithered on calls for an international force to protect shipping. Although it wants the force in place, especially since its tankers are being targeted, neither London nor Washington have moved fast enough since the first sabotage of tankers in May to put the force together. Instead, tankers have been targeted consistently by Iran from May 12 to June 13 and then on July 11, until Iran was able to finally seize the Stena Impero on July 19.
Johnson will also face calls by the US for the UK to increase its troop levels in Syria. The US has sought to create a larger international force so that the US can drawdown forces in Syria, in line with US President Donald Trump’s December decision to leave Syria.
US envoy James Jeffrey has been trying to work with Turkey and also European powers about this controversial safe zone concept that would create a buffer between Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. This whole concept is likely doomed to failure because the gaps are too large for the US to fill successfully, but nevertheless Washington continues along this road. Johnson will have to decide if he wants to commit more UK forces to Syria.
SINCE THE UK economy is suffering from Brexit concerns, Johnson will not want to alienate Turkey or the US, which means wading into the current Turkey-US tensions over the F-35 and Ankara’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Johnson will need to decide how to handle this complex puzzle because Turkey is seeking to strong-arm Cyprus as well over energy disputes. And Johnson will have to look at UK policy on Russia, which is inevitably connected to Russia’s role in Syria, Turkey and the Ukraine.
British Airways suspended flights to Cairo this week for seven days over unclear security concerns. However, the UK said it wasn’t Cairo International Airport that was the issue, but some other concern. This leaves many questions. Egypt is certainly unhappy about the suspension, and Johnson will need to mollify Cairo’s questions.
A court ruled in June that UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful, and the UK said it would stop granting new licenses while examining the ruling. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May’s government said they would seek to appeal, but it is unclear what Johnson’s view is. There is anger over Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and calls for Western powers to stop backing the Saudis. Once again, the UK economy will be important here because the UK wants close economic ties to Riyadh and its allies in the Gulf.
Down the list of important issues is the Israel-Palestinian issue. While the Trump administration has pushed the “Deal of the Century,” the UK has not been particularly active on the issue recently. Johnson is widely viewed as a friend of Israel, but there are many voices in the UK deeply critical of Israel. The UK will not want to anger other friends in the region – such as the Kingdom of Jordan – over changes to its historic policies, so Johnson will be expected not to rock the boat too much. That means remaining a friend to Israel but not changing UK policy regarding the Palestinians, which means paying lip service to the two-state solution.
Johnson will also be examining policy on Iraq. He has previously been supportive of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, and also the UK’s historic role in the country. Likely Johnson won’t want to tinker with much there, except to make sure that the UK maintains its support for Baghdad and also maintain good relations with the Kurdish region.
With so many potential crises in the Middle East, Johnson will have to think about how to proceed on many files, but he has limited time to make an impact because he will face challenges with Brexit and domestic politics. If time tells us anything, it is that even when people ignore the Middle East, crises here will come to haunt them if they don’t pay attention.
Note to Boris: pay attention to the Middle East.