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 failed French presidential candidates who refuse to endorse Emmanuel Macron

While the candidates of the main left and right parties have endorsed the centrist from nowhere, others have held back. 

And breathe.

At 8pm on Sunday night France, Europe, and much of the West let out a huge sigh of relief. After over a month of uncertainty, scandals, rebounds, debates and late surges, the results of the first round of the French Presidential Election was as predicted: Emmanuel Macron (24 per cent) will face off against Marine Le Pen (21 per cent) in the second round of the election on the 7 May.

While polls have been predicting this face-off for a while, the shocks of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had thrown polling predictions into doubt. But France has a good track record when it comes to polling, and their surveys are considered some of the most reliable in the world. The irony is that this uncertainty has meant that the polls have never been so central to a campaign, and the role of polling in democracies has been a hot topic of debate during the election.

The biggest surprise in many ways was that there were no surprises. If there was a surprise, it was a good one: participation was higher than expected: close to 80 per cent – on par with the Presidential Elections of 2012 – whereas there were concerns it would be as low as 70 per cent. Higher participation is normally a bad sign for the extremes, who have highly motivated voters but a limited base, and who often do better in elections when participation is low. Instead, it boosts the traditional parties, but here instead of the traditional right-wing Republican (Fillon is at 20 per cent) or Socialist parties (Hamon at 6 per cent), it was in fact the centre, with Emmanuel Macron, who benefited.

So France has so far not succumbed to the populist wave that has been engulfing the West. The contagion seemed to be spreading when the Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi lost a referendum on reforming the constitution, but the fightback started in Austria which rejected the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its Presidential election and voted for the pro-European, former-Green independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. Those hopes now rest on the shoulders of Macron. After having dubbed Angela Merkel the leader of the free world during his farewell tour of Europe, Barack Obama gave his personal blessing to Macron last week.

Many wondered what impact Thursday night’s shooting on the Champs-Elysées would have. Would it be a boon for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform? Or even right-wing François Fillon’s more traditional law and order approach? In the end the effect seems to have been minimal.

In the second round, Macron is currently predicted to beat Marine Le Pen by more than 60 per cent of the vote. But how does Le Pen almost double her vote in the second round, from around 20 per cent to close to 40 per cent? The "Republican Front" that saw her father off back in 2002, when he received only 18 per cent of the vote, has so far held at the level of the two traditional political parties. Both Hamon and Fillon have called to vote for Macron in the second round to stop the Front National - Hamon put it nicely when he said he could tell the difference between political opponents, and opponents of the Republic.

But not everyone is toing the line. Sens Commun, the anti-gay marriage group that has supported Fillon through thick and thin, said that it will not call to vote for either party – a thinly veiled invitation to vote for Le Pen. And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative, Catholic and anti-EU right wing candidate, whose 5 per cent is the reason Fillon didn’t make it to the second round, has also abstained from calling to vote for either. It is within this electorate that Le Pen will look to increase her vote.

The other candidate who didn’t call to vote for anyone was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who fell back on a demagogic position of saying he would follow the wishes of his supporters after having consulted them. But as a spokesperson for the FN pointed out, there are remarkable congruities between their respective platforms, which can be categorised as a populism of the left and a populism of the right.

They in particular converge over the question of Europe. Aping Brexit, both want to go to Brussels to argue for reform, and if none is forthcoming put membership of the Eurozone to the electorate. While Le Pen’s anti-Europeanism is patent, Mélenchon’s position is both disingenuous and dangerous. His Plan A, as he puts it, is to attempt reform at the European level. But he knows fine well that his demands, which include revoking the independence of the European Central Bank and putting an end to austerity (the ECB, through its massive programme of quantitative easing, has already been trying to stimulate growth) will not be met. So he reverts to his Plan B, which is to leave the European Treatises and refound Europe on a new basis with like-minded members.

Who those members might be he hasn’t specified, nor has he explained how he would leave the EU - at least Le Pen had the decency to say she would put it to a referendum. Leaving the European Treatise has been in his programme from the beginning, and seems to be the real object of his desires. Nonetheless, having set himself up as the anti-Le Pen candidate, most of his supporters will vote for Macron. Others will abstain, and abstention will only help Le Pen. We’ve been here before, and the last thing we need now is complacency.

 

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