The full horror of Houla emerges

How should the west respond to a crime against humanity?

The more we learn about last week's massacre in the Syrian town of Houla, the more horrific it seems. Following UN investigations, we know now there were at least 108 victims, 49 of whom were children and infants, their lives ended with a shot to the head or a knife to the throat. Fewer than 20 of the deaths were the result of the initial bombardment by the Syrian armed forces. Most were summarily executed in their own homes by state-sponsored militias (principally the shabiha). The front page of this morning's Times (see below) powerfully articulates the human revulsion one feels at such an event.

In a leading article (£), the paper calls for military action by Britain and others. Given the apparent futility of diplomacy and the legacy of western inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia, that is an understandable response. But there remain good reasons to doubt the wisdom of military action. Even a limited intervention would risk triggering a full-blown sectarian civil war and proxy interventions by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The west cannot avoid the uncomfortable truth that a significant portion of the Syrian population remains unambiguously loyal to Assad. Moreover, as Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell argued in the New Statesman in February, "our action would be viable only if the rebels wanted us to intervene." For now, they remain divided. The Syrian National Council has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone but the National Co-ordinating Committee, the other main faction, favours a negotiated settlement. In view of the continuing bloodshed in Libya, that is no surprise.

The best hope remains that Russia, Syria's most loyal ally and its largest supplier of arms, can be persuaded to exert genuine diplomatic pressure on Damascus. The US is pushing for a negotiated settlement, modelled on that in Yemen, under which Assad would depart but remnants of his administration would remain in place. Yet even if Vladimir Putin acquiesces in the proposal, it is hard to see Syria's tyrant doing so. The fear remains that, like Macbeth, he is "in blood stepp'd in so far" that retreat is unthinkable. But it is hard to conceive that military intervention would do anything but exacerbate the bloodshed. There are no easy options for the west but diplomacy, not bombs, continues to offer the best chance of stopping the killing.

Demonstrators protest in front of the Syrian consulate in Istanbul on May 27, 2012 against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.