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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.

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

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