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

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.