The Liberal Democrat Party conference opened with an international question and answer session that touched on the topic that would come to dominate the conference's international focus – Syria. Lord Wallace, the Liberal Dem foreign office minister in the House of Lords, said that the Lib Dems are pulled in different directions on the issue of Syria. He explained that the breach of the Geneva Convention by using chemical weapons cannot be allowed to pass without consequence, but while "we have not ruled [the military option] out… we would prefer the diplomatic channel." Lord Wallace went on to make the point that the UK cannot deal with Syria on its own and needs the support of others, including the Arab League. Lynne Featherstone MP, the Lib Dem Minister at the Department for International Development, focused on the huge levels of aid being sent to Syria from the UK, pointing out that Syria is currently the biggest recipient of aid globally.
An emergency topical debate was held on the conference floor halfway through the week to discuss the issue in more detail as opposing opinions were emerging throughout the party membership. Martin Horwood MP opened the debate by noting that the future for Syria is "bleak." He argued that there is a need to make herculean efforts for political development in the country. Lord Wallace took to the stage to warn of the risk of "regional overspill" if the Syrian crisis is not deal with. As other party members argued for and against intervention, the shadow of Iraq seemed to haunt the Liberal Dems. Jon Brown, a risk analyst who had been based in Syria, claimed that the UK Lib Dem policy on Syria is a mess. As Julie Smith, the vice chair of the federal policy committee, summed up, the situation in Syria is too grave for party politics and she warned that the legacy of Iraq should not impact what happens in Syria.
There was a range of events during the conference's fringe meetings, with a number focusing on Muslims, political Islam and ostensibly an engagement with both. The party had invited Wafaa Dawoud of the Free Egypt Party and Saed Kharajah of the Arab Alliance on Freedom and Democracy to address the conference. During their first meeting at the conference, both visitors used the opportunity to highlight their beliefs that "liberalism" is the solution to problems in the Middle East. Dawoud argued that recent events in Egypt had come about because the education was bad, the economy was bad and there was no stability in the country. But whilst Kharajah argued that a secular model in the Middle East would be the "way forward", he also made the point that "liberals should deal with values and not politics" and therefore they should reject occupation, whether it is by Al-Assad or Israel. Maajid Nawaz, the Lib Dem candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, added that he supports the opposition in Syria because his liberal values tell him too, but he warned that there is a need to be careful of the Al-Nusra front because of their links to Al-Qaeda.
At their second meeting the pair were joined by a third delegate, Maaged Ibrahim, the Secretary General of the Democratic Front Party in Egypt. Chaired by Lord Wallace, he opened the meeting (titled secularism versus political Islam) by saying that he was being bombarded with different advice on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is extreme or not. Discussing the coup in Egypt and her party's role, Wafaa Dawud said that the army had supported her party because the army is secular. She claimed that political Islam is not in power now because of "the revolution", but she did say that she did not agree with the events in Nahda and Rabba Al-Adawiya. After the debate, Dawoud told MEMO that she accepted that events in Egypt did fall under the definition of a military coup, explaining that she is of this opinion because of her work as a lecturer in political science.
Kharajah laid the blame for the fall of the government in Egypt at the feet of the Ikhwan, claiming that in Egypt and Tunisia they tried to get involved in politics too soon. He argued that a secular constitution is needed in these countries, and that it would also protect religious people. The discussion took a bizarre turn when Maaged Ibrahim spoke about the Muslim Brotherhood as a "secret organisation" and compared them to the mafia. He argued that 30 June 30 was good because they had been asking for liberalism. Robert Woodthorpe Browne, the Chair of the International Relations Committee brought a semblance of balance to the meeting when he quoted Moncef Marzouki and Rached Ghannouchi at Chatham House in 2012 and their thesis that the only solution for the Middle East lay in a marriage between moderate secularism and moderate Islamic parties. Browne argued that Egypt had failed precisely because this had not happened. He went on to argue that the problem with political parties in the Middle East is that there is a lack of focus on grass roots activism, and instead a cult of personality. Despite the title of the meeting there were no representatives of political Islam to present that view.
The regular staple of any Middle Eastern related events, Israel and Palestine, was also covered this year. The Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine welcomed Professor Colin Green of UCL and Colonel Desmond Travers, most noted for his contribution to the Goldstone report. The packed meeting listened to discussions on Gaza and an update on the situation in the Strip. Professor Green's focus on the "most crowded place on earth" highlighted a number of the demographic and health problems the population in Gaza is currently facing. He argued that the UK government is totally complicit in the Gaza problem. Colonel Travers focused on the military actions against Gaza and some of their consequences, saying that there was "nothing as appalling as Cast Lead". Lord Andrew Philips asked the speakers what actions they would encourage the government to take. Whilst Colonel Travers tried to not be drawn on the issue he did admit that the EU focuses towards shedding borders is something to think about. Colin Green argued that the only way forward is to end the occupation, and that now that the two-state solution has failed a "fair democratic solution" is needed.
Palestine was also the topic for conversation at the New Statesman and Medical Aid for Palestinians event with Simon Hughes MP and Sir Ming Campbell MP. The MPs were joined by MAPs CEO Tony Laurance and political analyst Wassem El-Sarraj. They were asked if "aid could be effective without democracy?" Sir Ming explained that following his recent trip to the region, he is finding it hard to be positive and said that although there is a lot of good work being done nothing has been achieved yet. On Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza he said that although Israel may squeeze them, they are never going to go away and he argued that more advocacy is needed here in the UK and that continued pressure on the US needs to be kept up. Simon Hughes MP used the discussion to compare Palestine to the campaign against South African apartheid and accepted that conversations about boycotts and sanctions need to happen. He argued that if the current talks fail any chance for a solution would fall away. Tony Laurance explained the motivation behind MAPs advocacy work, and said that as a political problem, Palestine needs a political solution. Hughes strongest argument came when he called on every single member of the Cabinet to visit the West Bank and Gaza and said that if they did so there would be a greater sense of urgency in their work to bring about a solution.
The Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel event focussed little on Israel, but more on the language of anti-Semitism. The panels' consensus, which included Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael MP, is that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic in and of itself, but that it can lead to anti-Semitic outcomes. Carmichael explained that he thinks terms such as "ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid" are inappropriate and lead to the deligitimisation of Israel.
As the conference drew to a close, discussions returned to Syria and Tim Farron MP, the party's president, explained that although he disagreed with Nick Clegg, Clegg had shown real leadership on his position. Clegg explained his position on Syria during his speech to conference, describing himself as "an internationalist, pure and simple." He said that although others may think the UK has already pulled up the drawbridge, this is far from the case. Whilst he accepted that Iraq has cast a long shadow, he said it would be a double tragedy if its legacy prevented helping Syria and that his values inspired the need to take action on this issue.
The conference was an interesting mix of debate and discussion on the Middle East. The Lib Dems, traditionally an internationalist party, used the conference to discuss some of the more complex goings on in the region. How these discussions will come to affect their policies and standings on issues over the next year as yet remains unclear, but it's safe to say that the party will want to continue to have a say on all things Middle East.
Click to read the live blog from the Lib Dem conference (no longer updated).