Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Syria: what do Liberal Democrats want?

Last night Liberal Democrat Voice brought you Nick Clegg's view on Syria, which can be summarised as follows:
  • if we stand idly by we set a very dangerous precedent
  • the use of chemical weapons is a repugnant crime
  • we will not stand idly by when chemical weapons are used in complete breach of international law
  •  Government “is not going to act outside the remit of international law”
  • we want to stand up for the standards and norms in the civilised world
In the last couple of days Paddy Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell, two of the most respected voices this country has on foreign affairs, have been saying slightly different things. It's almost like it's being cleverly choreographed. Paddy is slightly in favour of action, Sir Menzies slightly against. In the Times on Monday (£), Paddy said:
What has happened in Damascus is a challenge to our humanity. It is also a challenge to our system of international law. If the international community will not now find the means to make it clear that we will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, like poison gas, for the mass murder of innocent citizens, then the fragile structures of international law that we have painfully erected these last 20 years will be undermined, and the threat of the future use of weapons of mass destruction will be widened.
What sort of intervention does he want to see? Well, he doesn't really say, but he says what he doesn't want.
Here what is needed is something proportionate, consistent with international law, closely defined and tightly targeted on the crime. So no to no-fly zones — even if they were militarily possible. And no to arming the rebels too — even if that was wise (which, by the way, neither is). It means something sharp, quick, specific and punishing. And preferably — strongly preferably — legitimised by a UN Security Council Resolution.
On the other hand, Sir Menzies, while being equally measured in his comments, reminded us that intervention in Iraq didn't end well. Speaking on the BBC News Channel yesterday, he said that any intervention must have clear objectives and understand the potential consequences. He said that he was not persuaded that military action is the right thing to do.

From what I can glean, the predominant feeling in Liberal Democrat circles, amongst those is intense anxiety. This is entirely appropriate. Nobody should ever contemplate something like this without calculating the human cost. Whatever we do or don't do, people will die. What is the least worst option?
This is no six month debate like Iraq. We are hurtling towards a decision which will have long term and serious consequences and Parliament will vote tomorrow on a motion which is as yet unseen. We can expect that action will follow swiftly thereafter, given that the Commons is being recalled just two working days early. Why the haste? You can understand that nobody wants a repetition of the scenes in Damascus last week, and the longer it's left, the more likely it becomes.

Nick Clegg has a lot of work to do if he wants to persuade an anxious party to go along with any military action. The major concerns that I can see are:

Is it legal and what?

There's no chance of UN backing, but, as Jonathan Fryer argues, the "responsibility to protect" might cover that:
 As I said in a live interview on the al-Etejah (Iraqi Arab) TV channel last night, the justification for the UK, US, France and maybe Germany taking such a step, along with sympathetic Middle Eastern countries including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, without UN approval, would be the relatively new concept within International Law, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), about which I have written extensively. This asserts that if a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people, then the international community has a responsibility to intervene on humanitarian grounds, providing there are reasonable prospects of success.
We have Nick Clegg's assurance that action will be legal, but we must see the basis for that argument and we must know why it's being done, with the evidence spelled out in words of one syllable.

Is there an international consensus in favour?

My sense is that people are pretty much opposed to a unilateral action involving just Britain and the US. They want to see broad international support for action. This is one area where the slowly turning diplomatic wheels and the perceived need for speed to prevent further atrocities clash. Our European liberal partners are not so reticent. ALDE's Guy Verhofstadt wants Assad out:
Europe should show to Assad that it cannot accept in any way his crimes against humanity. We should be united in this. This intervention should not be a loose coalition of the willing but a strong cooperation between the US, the EU, Turkey and the majority of the Arab countries. We should also work together in a strategy to get Assad out as this is the most important obstacle for peace talks.
Together we should discuss how to arm the Free Syrian Army, how to implement a no-fly-zone to protect the Syrian people and how to deal with the growing number of Jihadis. Such a common and effective strategy will only be possible if the EU speaks with one voice. I call on the High Representative to convene a new urgent meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. Also, I have called on my colleagues in the EP Conferce of Presidents to meet for an urgent discussion on Syria.

What are the objectives and exit strategy?

Do we know what we are doing and have we thought it through properly, and have we taken account of the fact that according to a poll in today's Sun that we're facing public opinion of 2:1 against? I suspect that's not a million miles from where the Liberal Democrats are.

As I said yesterday, I am seriously struggling with this. My instinct is against, but where military action is proposed, it almost always is. I wasn't happy about the Falklands War when I was 14. I see where Nick Clegg is coming from, and I am prepared to listen to what he has to say. I just hope that Parliament steps up to the plate tomorrow and properly goes through the issues with as fine a tooth comb as time permits. We need a measured, cautious, serious tone.

Mike Crockart, by the way, has emailed all the people signed up to his email newsletter to ask for their views. He said:
The Prime Minister has said that MPs will vote on a 'clear motion'. It is likely that the motion will consider whether Britain should take military action against the Assad Government.
I appreciate that people across Edinburgh West hold strong views on the situation in Syria and I wanted to contact you to ask that you share your thoughts on the matter with me.
Others may have done similar - please add any you know of in the comments.

What do you think?

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