Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Syria: the agonies of a liberal sceptic are as nothing to those of the Syrian people

It's dark in Syria right now, in every sense. The horror that is everyday life in most of the country has unfurled itself before our very eyes as key regional players have intervened in pursuit of their own agendas to the detriment of ordinary Syrians.

And, not unreasonably, most Syrians who are capable of fleeing have done just that, desperate to find a place of safety, flooding across the borders only to find themselves unwelcome in countries who cannot cope with the numbers of refugees and reduced to living in temporary accommodation without the means to sustain themselves, reliant in aid that has been given grudgingly if at all.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceTonight's vote in the Commons will do little to change that. Death will rain from the skies from any number of adversaries and those who have little enough to lose will continue to be the most punished. And yet, I find myself on the side of those who, like Tim Farron, have voted with the Government tonight.

It isn't because I wholeheartedly support either the Government or its proposals. I don't. I haven't been convinced by Philip Hammond - his narrow, petty-minded effort to score political points sullied the office of Foreign Secretary. It is because we have a responsibility to attempt to do something which might offer succour to those poor wretches inside and outside Syria who simply want to live in peace in their homes.

Ideally, our actions in Syria would create the conditions for safe zones where people can rebuild their lives and allow a diplomatic solution to the Syrian problem in parallel to the elimination of Islamic State in the region. And yes, I accept the inherent, possibly foolish, optimism in that statement.

As an active participant, we earn a right to influence the broader strategy, one more focussed and targeted on the real threat to us all. And, using our diplomats, we can and must work towards persuading Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia that dealing with Islamic State as a problem to be solved as opposed to an opportunity to be exploited is in all of our interests.

We also need to look upon air strikes as part of a wider response - supporting those countries currently hosting the overwhelming majority of refugees, cutting off the flow of funds and weapons, taking in the most needy of the displaced and providing them with care.

Tim has said that he intends to keep holding the Government to account, urging them to do more to support the humanitarian effort, and he is right to say that. It would be too easy to vote for action and then sit back and let them get on with it. We know that the Conservative administration has been slow to act and sometimes grudging in its compassion.

So, had it been me sitting on the green benches tonight, I would have voted yes. Not with unalloyed enthusiasm, indeed with regret. Our record in Middle Eastern affairs over the past two decades has been one to be embarrassed about too often. But a liberal foreign policy is not a pacifist one, and whilst I respect the deeply held views of many on my Party who believe this to be a step too far, I don't share them.

I want to see discussion of our goals, our strategy and our diplomatic effort in the public domain - we deserve nothing less. We, the people, in a properly informed democracy, need access to the thinking of those who guide us in matters of life and death, and given the risks that intervention entails, support is not blind.

It is the worst of times in Syria tonight. We owe it to the people of Syria to strive to make things better.

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