“The Syrian revolution is a baby – it needs nourishment”

Ewa Jasiewicz reports on the plight of the relief efforts in Syria.

We're in Ma'arrat al Numan, a front-line liberated town in Idlib province, Syria. Once home to 120,000, the population is now between 4-10,000. Families who couldn't afford to flee live in ruins, makeshift shelters and even caves. Destruction is everywhere; piles of rubble daunt the streets between bomb-axed minarets and burnt out shops. Part-collapsed apartment blocks reveal gaping living rooms. Shelling echoes daily from the Wadi Deif regime military base close by. It's mostly local Free Army fighters holding the line, along with Ahrar al Sham, and Jabhat al Nusra playing a smaller role. The scant weaponry ranges from regime-raided machine and hand guns to the "Cannon of Hell" – a launcher made out of a tractor, with cooking gas canisters for missiles. The city's sub-station, water plants and pipes have all been destroyed. Repairing the pipes is impossible due to their proximity to Wadi Deif.

The injured are ferried by fighters or medical volunteers to a "hospital in hiding" – far back from the frontline, where operations are carried out in a basement with a lamp made out of a satellite dish with half a dozen light bulbs stuck in it. The service runs on a drip-feed of aid sourced in Turkey and round-the-clock volunteer hours spread between a few dozen exhausted doctors and nurses. Ma'arrat al Numan is still a city at war.

We're in the gloomy garden of widow and mother of six Om Abid. Ahmad*, an activist and volunteer with Basmat Amal (Smile of Hope), a home-grown relief organisation, has brought us here. He's doling out cash donations of 500 Syrian pounds sent from a wealthy Syrian woman living in Saudi Arabia. It's a drop in the ocean. Cooking gas costs £S3,000 per canister up from £S1,000 two years ago, bread is £S25. water needs to be delivered by truck and costs £S500 a week and a box of thirty candles, which once cost 70, is now hitting £S300. The dark takes over at night.

Relief doesn't feel revolutionary but keeping it coming is a means to stay put and keep up the front. Basmet Amal are one of four local aid organisations feeding into a relief co-ordination committee that feeds into a broader council including military-security, social affairs, and media-comms committees.

Basmat Amal recognise the role aid can play in buying loyalties according to a donor's agenda, and how depoliticising desperation can be. Self-sufficiency is key. By opening the first primary schools in Ma'arra since the revolution began, a low priced products supermarket, cash for widows and a soap and shampoo factory in the pipeline, they hope to create autonomy and strength for the community. They still see themselves as part of a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrations, but was met with bullets, then bombs, and then warplanes, until street-protest-as suicide was no longer an option. According to Basmet Amal, 850 people have been killed, and 2,000 houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011. 'We are fighting for our dignity' we hear again and again.

But what is the scope for people – especially women - to participate in their own relief? Can people come together and make collective decisions? "Everyone is locked in their own homes," starts Ahmed. "Everyone just cares about their own problems". "But there are always shared problems, no?" we suggest. "I suppose so, but just to get people together in one place, to feel safe, is a struggle." Shelling and gunfire rattles in the distance as he speaks. Neither landlines or mobiles work in Ma'arra, but there is internet if you have a satellite and generator. Otherwise comms are face to face, and door to door. Kinship and neighbourhood networks have been fractured by the town haemorrhaging so many residents. Who will look after your children? Who will drive you home, when fuel and cars are in such short supply? And even if you put together a group, with 90 per cent of your town in exile, who are you representing?

It's an ongoing conversation throughout our trip, "How to build participation?" If Basmet Amal have 30 volunteers now, how can they reach 100 and more? Particularly under the lengthening shadow of militarisation and sectarianism, and external regional and global interests "all wanting to eat from Syria". How do you keep up a revolution which you keep being told is a civil war, that it's gone, it belongs to 'warlords' eating the hearts of their opponents and shooting children in the face, that is going to break Palestine, and will be Iraq mark two, is something you should never have started. This is not your revolution is the message. For many of us in the West it's the same, that it's too complicated, leave it to the big boys, you can't relate to this, there's nothing you can do, this is not your revolution. Isolation and disposession creeps and the work of creating spaces of resistance and reclamation is eclipsed by a what-bleeds-leads agenda.

It's a burning hot afternoon and we're in the languid garden of the Kafranbel media centre talking solidarity with local organisers. The centre is famous for its' viral banners. For UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's visit, locals raised: "BRAHIMI: 'NEVER MIND BURNING THE WORLD WILLINGLY THAN HAVING ASSAD FOR ONE DAY MORE' GO FUCK YOURSELF." And "USA – YOU LIVED SEPTEMBER 11TH ONCE, WE LIVE IT EVERY DAY." "We never get visits from activists, only journalists," says local fixer Amer.* "We want to show them our demonstrations but they just say, 'Take us to the fighters'." It's a common obsession. This May Al Jazeera reported from Raqqa, central Syria but focused squarely on Al Qaeda chopping three peoples heads off and not demonstrations by public sector workers demanding wages from money looted from the central bank or protests against Sharia courts. 

We discuss the idea of a joint news-behind-the-news project that can profile struggles that mainstream media ignore. Mona* a local feminist activist working on a children's support project called Karama Bus (Dignity Bus) is lukewarm. 'Everyone in Syria knows what is going on. It's a good idea but we do not have the capacity. We literally do not have the people on the ground. Too many Syrian activists are outside in Turkey or Lebanon. They need to be here'. We talk about skills-sharing on facilitating meetings and organising but stress unequivocally that this is dangerous territory for foreign activists because it reproduces colonial dynamics of white Westerners telling Arabs what to do and how to organise; the NGOised "facilitator" that conducts, regulates and wields power over locals. But co-training with Syrian and Arabic speaking activists, is agreed, could be useful...

The thread continues back in Ma'arra. We eat breakfast with a young medic who treats fighters on the Front. "You were in Kafranbel? They have three functioning hospitals there, we only have one and we are on the Front! I don't understand why they don't help us," he says. Emergencies take up energy. "Our revolution is a baby," he explains. "It needs milk, it needs nourishment, it needs to grow. Of course we want people to be organising their own representation, but that's walking, that's further down the line. For now, we need to survive." As if on cue a war plane tears through the sky above us. He starts to utter prayers. His wife, an organiser, but still unable to go to the internet café without a male relative, begins to breathe shallow and fan herself. It passes over. We sip our tea in silence until we can find our words to talk again.

*Names changed to protect identity

A shorter version of this piece appeared in last week's New Statesman magazine

People walk past damaged buildings in Ma'arrat al Numan, Idlib province in March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty
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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network