Why the Lib Dems are silent on Syria

While leaving the door open to military action, the party's MPs know that the evidence required to justify intervention hasn't been presented.

The media is full of folk pontificating that 'something must be done about' Syria. There’s an implication in the fact that Miliband was called into Downing Street yesterday, that it’s been decided that the 'something' involves flying cruise missiles into buildings where we suspect bad things happen. Parliament’s recalled and we all look forward to seeing if we’re going to be presented with a dodgy dossier and a refusal to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice (ring any bells?).

Yet in the midst of all this, my lot are strangely silent. Nick’s identikit statement to Cameron’s aside, there’s been almost nothing said, in the mainstream media or on social media, by anyone in the Lib Dems since it was announced that there’s going to be a vote. I can hazard a guess why.

Last time Parliament was asked to support military advice, there was a UN resolution already in place, and the remit of the military was clear – they were to protect civilians. Not too hard to support that. But this time it’s rather different.

Firstly, there’s no UN resolution in place. As the House of Commons Defence Committee Report on the Libyan conflict made clear: "we are concerned that the abstentions of five Council members, particularly the veto wielding countries of Russia and China, may make obtaining United Nations support more difficult for similar situations in the future".

They had that right.

Secondly, there’s apparently no mandate here to defend civilians, nor any pretence of such. This is about punishment. Setting down a marker. Letting other chemical weapon-hording dictators know that there’s a red line you just don’t cross. You can almost hear advisers whispering in Cameron’s ear that "there’s only one language these people understand". 

Thirdly, when Lib Dem MPs voted to 'defend civilians', I suspect most expected it not to extend far beyond enforcing the no-fly zone requested by some members of the Arab League. I wonder how many of those trooping through the lobby realised they were voting for regime change by military intervention (recall that the NATO operation was shut down just 11 days after the death of Gadaffi). What wording will they be asked to support this time – and what lies behind those words?

These are difficult issues for all MPs. But for the Lib Dems, with our proud record of opposing the Iraq war, it’s especially hard. Of course Iraq-is-not-Libya-is-not-Syria. But until there’s a UN resolution, and clear proof of who used chemical weapons on whom, it’s hard to see how Lib Dems can support military action. And sure the Prime Minister can tell us he’s seen that proof. But we’ve been there before, haven’t we?

I suspect Lib Dem MPs are under severe pressure to do what the political glitterati are telling them is their, ahem, moral duty, but in their heart of hearts they know the evidence hasn’t yet been presented to them to make that case. And while they are leaving the door open - hence their silence - the wider political leadership is going to have to work a lot harder to get them on side.

At least I hope so.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Danny Alexander, Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.