Jeremy Bowen: Ice cream in Damascus

The central parts of Damascus feel more like a city at war than they did a year ago but physically the place is still almost untouched, finds the BBC's Middle East editor.

One evening in 2006, after a hard day, I was having drinks with a colleague in a hotel in Beirut. It was during the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Every so often, the crump of another air raid came from the southern suburbs, Hezbollah’s stronghold. My colleague Simon Wilson, now the BBC’s bureau chief in Brussels, mused about history: “Do you think this is what it felt like to be having a beer somewhere in central Europe in about 1934?”
 
Simon was referring to the nagging feeling that many people in the Middle East had – the instinct that it might all be bad but that it could get so much worse. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was still reverberating around the region. The removal of Saddam Hussein had changed the balance of power between Sunni Muslims and the Shias, not least his old enemies in Shia Iran.
 
At that bar in Beirut, Simon and I decided he might be right. The Middle East was being shaken into a new era and it didn’t look good. I have to admit that the conversation moved on. We didn’t foresee the Arab uprisings, the ousting of the dictators the west had cultivated and protected for so long, the rise and perhaps fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Syrian civil war.
 
In 2006, the war was fought along familiar lines. The Israelis and Hezbollah were doing their best to kill each other. Many Lebanese civilians died. Yet the result was different. Hezbollah fought the Israelis to a standstill. That was another sign of change.
 
Seven years on, the Middle East is deep into new territory. Someone said recently that the reliable old explainer about the Middle East – my enemy’s enemy is my friend – no longer applies. These days, it is just as likely that my enemy’s enemy is my enemy.
 
Blast from the past
The other day, I went to the office of Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister. He picked up on the theme. Mekdad asked why it was that Barack Obama wanted to attack the Syrian regime when it was fighting al- Qaeda. Syria and the west, he said, shared a common enemy. It made no sense to fight but President Obama, he said, was determined to attack Syria.
 
When I asked Mekdad about the evidence that the Americans had come up with for the use of chemical weapons, he looked back into history, too. He explained that he had been Syria’s ambassador at the UN and remembered when the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, gave his infamous briefing about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The new evidence, he said, was just as useless.
 
Minor consideration?
I recently had another warning from the past. The amiable, extremely well-connected Mokhtar Lamani, who is the head of the office of the UN peace envoy in Damascus, recalled what he had seen at the UN during the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the 1990s. The humanitarian situation here is already a near catastrophe, he said, but if sectarian hatred in Syria continues to increase, there could be a huge genocide.
 
All of Syria’s minorities are in danger, he warned, but the most threatened are President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites.
 
Stuck in the middle
To understand what’s happening in Syria’s capital, it is important to get the geography right. Damascus proper, the ancient-walled Old City, the Ottoman streets around it and the sprawling concrete high-rises in the inner suburbs are the stronghold of the regime. Yet there is also a ring of outer suburbs, some of which have been under the control of armed rebels for well over a year. Others are bitterly contested.
 
The outer suburbs are the places hit by the chemical attack that the Americans say killed almost 1,500 people. In Britain, the word “suburban” evokes visions of neat gardens, washing the car and Sunday lunch. The outer suburbs of Damascus are unplanned concrete jungles, thrown up in a hurry to accommodate poor migrants from the countryside. They were never comfortable but now they are desolate places, battered over 18 months of heavy shelling by the regime.
 
On previous trips to Damascus, I have seen streets in Douma, one of the suburbs believed to have been hit in the chemical attack, made impassable by rubble from collapsed buildings. Most of the original residents are now among the millions of Syrians who have been displaced within the country or who have fled abroad.
 
Those who are left are desperate to see US bombs and cruise missiles hitting the regime’s strong points. However, not every Syrian is dedicated to the downfall of the Assad regime. Far from it. The president has his own support. He would not have survived – and at times prospered – without it.
 
And in between the Assad family and the scores of opposition militias, there is a big middle ground of Syrians who just want to survive the war, protect their families and property and have the chance to get on with their lives again.
 
Keep cool and carry on
The central parts of Damascus feel more like a city at war than they did a year ago but physically the place is still almost untouched. Roadblocks cause huge traffic jams and power supply is patchy but almost no buildings have been damaged and, in the Old City, the staff at the best-known ice-cream shop in Damascus, Bakdash, still pummel the ice cream inside its churns with great wooden poles.
 
But Damascus is groaning under the weight of two million displaced people and is at the centre of a civil war that has developed into a regional proxy fight. The Saudis, Iranians, Qataris, Iraqis, Turks, Jordanians, Lebanese and Israelis all have a big stake in what is happening. So do Russia and the US and its western friends. The war is now about much more than Syria alone. That is why it’s the greatest foreign policy, strategic and humanitarian crisis of our time.
 
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. An updated paperback edition of his book “The Arab Uprisings” is published by Simon & Schuster (£8.99)
Damascus on September 5, 2013. Photo: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt