Boris Johnson cancels trip to Moscow after US strikes on Syria

Chris Johnston
Boris Johnson said his priority was to building international support for a ceasefire in Syria. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Boris Johnson has cancelled a planned trip to Moscow after the US launched missile strikes on Syria and in the wake of “Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime”.

The British foreign secretary had been due to fly to Russia on Monday for talks with his direct counterpart, the first such meeting since 2012. But the Foreign Office confirmed on Saturday that Johnson would no longer make the trip because “developments in Syria have changed the situation fundamentally”.

Johnson said: “My priority is now to continue contact with the US and others in the run-up to the G7 meeting on 10-11 April – to build coordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground and an intensified political process.

“We deplore Russia’s continued defence of the Assad regime even after the chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. We call on Russia to do everything possible to bring about a political settlement in Syria and work with the rest of the international community to ensure that the shocking events of the last week are never repeated.”

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, will still go ahead with a visit to Moscow to deliver a “clear and coordinated” message to the Russians, Johnson said.

Russia has condemned US missile strikes on an airbase at Shayrat as an act of “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law”.

On Saturday warplanes killed one person and wounded another as they again struck the northern Syrian town where a chemical attack killed 87 people on Tuesday.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the airstrike on the eastern side of Khan Sheikhun killed a woman, the first death in the town since the chemical attack.

The Local Coordination Committees, another monitoring group, said the airstrike was carried out by a Russian warplane. It said the woman killed had fled to the town from her hometown of Latameh in central Syria.

At least 15 civilians, including four children, were also killed in a suspected US-led coalition airstrike on Saturday near Raqqa – Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold – the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. A further 17 people were injured in the strike on Heneyda, according to the UK-based group.

Syria missile strikes map

Elsewhere in Syria, coalition forces conducted seven strikes against Isis targets on Friday. They claimed to have destroyed four vehicles and three fighting positions, and suppressed nine tactical units near Tabqa.

Johnson’s decision came as the US appeared to back away from any wider military involvement in the Syrian conflict, less than 24 hours after launching Tomahawk missiles at a regime airbase. It did, however, say it had put the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on notice that it would take further military action if he used chemical weapons again.

“The United States will no longer wait for Assad to use chemical weapons without any consequences. Those days are over,” the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told a special session of the UN security council. “The United States took a very measured step last night,” Haley added. “We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary.”

However, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, refused to discuss any next steps – military or diplomatic – as the world struggled to understand Trump’s policy on the civil war.

Syrian warplanes were reported to have since taken off from the airbase that was targeted by the US, suggesting that the impact of the overnight attack had been minimal. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said government aircraft had bombed the outskirts of Khan Sheikhun.

Spicer called the missile strike on the airbase “very decisive, justified and proportional” and entirely justified by “humanitarian purposes”. But he failed to say whether Assad had to leave power, despite Tillerson’s insistence before the missile strike that diplomatic steps to oust Assad were already under way.

Washington’s mixed signals on Assad are likely to unsettle or disappoint the Syrian opposition, which initially viewed the strike as a glimmer of hope amid a relentless onslaught.

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, also said on Saturday that Ankara saw the US intervention in Syria as appropriate but not enough. “If this intervention is limited only to an airbase, if it does not continue and if we don’t remove the regime from heading Syria, then this would remain a cosmetic intervention,” said Çavuşoğlu.

Trump’s missile barrage suggested a reversal from his previous indifference to Assad’s continued rule. The US president now faces conflicting demands: from Congress to escalate militarily and from Russia to back down.

Humanitarian groups, meanwhile, are demanding evidence of a strategy to end the conflict peacefully.

At a UN security council session on Friday, Russia’s deputy envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, warned the “consequences for international stability could be extremely serious”.

“It’s not hard to imagine how much the spirits of the terrorists have been raised by this attack,” Safronkov said.

The Russian defence ministry said it was beefing up its air defences in Syria. A defence ministry spokesman, Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov, said the effectiveness of the US strike was “very low”, claiming that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles had reached the Shayrat airbase in the Homs province.

He said the strikes had destroyed only six MiG-23 fighter jets of the Syrian airforce, which were under repair, but did not damage other Syrian warplanes at the base. The US military said all but one of the missiles had reached their targets.

The US was supported by its western allies. France’s president, François Hollande, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Assad bore “sole responsibility” for provoking the missile strike. The UK’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said the strike was “wholly appropriate”.

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