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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After his latest reshuffle, who’s who on Donald Trump’s campaign team?

Following a number of personnel shake-ups, here is a guide to who’s in and who’s out of the Republican candidate’s campaign team.

Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, stepped down last week. A man as controversial as Trump himself, he has departed following the announcement last Wednesday of a new campaign manager and CEO for Team Trump. Manafort had only been in the post for two months, following another campaign team reshuffle by Trump back in June.

In order to keep up with the cast changes within Team Trump, here’s the low-down of who is who in the Republican candidate’s camp, and who-was-who before they, for one reason or another, fell out of favour.

IN

Kellyanne Conway, campaign manager

Kellyane Conway is a Republican campaign manager with a history of clients who do a line in outlandish statements. Former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, whose campaign Conway managed in 2012, is infamous for his comments on “legitimate rape”.

Despite losing that campaign, Conway’s experiences with outspoken male candidates should stand her in good stead to run Trump’s bid. She is already credited with somewhat tempering his rhetoric, through the use of pre-written speeches, teleprompters and his recent apology, although he has since walked that back.

Conway is described as an expert in delivering messages to female voters and has had her own polling outfit, The Polling Firm/WomanTrend for over 20 years and supported Ted Cruz’s campaign before he was vanquished by Trump in May. Her strategy will include praising Trump on TV and trying to craft an image of him as a dependable candidate without diminishing his outlier appeal.

She recently told MSNBC, “I think you should judge people by their actions, not just their words on a campaign trail”. Given that Trump’s campaign pledges, particularly those on immigration, veer towards the completely unworkable, one wonders what else besides words he actually has to offer.

Perhaps Conway, with her experience of attempting to repackage gaffes will be the one to tell us. Conway also told TIME magazine that there is “no question” that Trump is a better candidate than Hillary Clinton. Given Trump’s frightening comments on abortion, to name just one issue, it’s difficult to see how this would prove true.

Stephen Bannon, campaign CEO

While Conway may bring a more thoughtful, considered touch to Trump’s hitherto frenetic campaigning, Stephen Bannon promises to bring just the opposite.

Bannon is executive chairman of right-wing media outlet Breitbart, also the online home of British alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Once described by Bloomberg as “the most dangerous political operative in America”, the ex-Goldman Sachs banker can only be expected to want to up Trump’s rhetoric as the election approaches to maintain his radical edge.

Trump has explicitly stated that: “I don’t wanna change. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you’re not being honest with people”.

As Bannon leads a news site with sometimes as outlandish and insensitive views as Trump himself, one can safely assume that Bannon will have no problem letting Trump “be himself”.

The Trump Brood, advisers

While his employed advisers come and go, the people that have been unwaveringly loyal to Trump, and play key advisory roles, are his four adult children: Donald Jr, 38, Ivanka, 34, Erik 22 and Tiffany, 22. With personalities as colourful as their father’s, the Trump children have been close to the campaign since its inception.

Donald Jr personally delivered the bad news to Lewandowski, the younger Trumps describing him as a “control freak”. Although it’s common for the offspring of politicians to take part in their parent’s campaigns (see Chelsea Clinton), in Trump’s case the influence of his children goes undiluted by swathes of professionals. This, despite his actual employed campaign directors being experienced establishment figures, adds credence to the image of Trump’s brand as family-based and folksy, furthering also his criticism of Hillary Clinton as being “crookedly” in the sway of bankers and elites.

Lewandowski’s ultimate downfall has been attributed to his attempts to spread negative stories in the media about Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and husband of Ivanka. Ivanka and Kushner were long-time critics of Lewandowski for his indulgence and encouragement of Trump’s most divisive instincts, and apparently they were integral to his firing.

Whether any good came from this is hard to discern, as Trump still managed to insult the Muslim community all over again with his comments last month about the late solider Humayun Khan, also insulting veterans and “gold star” families in the process.

OUT

Paul Manafort, former national campaign chair

Although Trump called his departing campaign manager “a true professional”, Manafort has recently been beset by personal controversy and criticised for failing to deliver results. Manafort has taken the blame for the poor polling results that have followed Trump’s awful last few weeks, with Trump’s recent (lacklustre and unspecific) apology representing a complete change of tack.

Despite his many years of experience in politics, Manafort fell out of favour with Trump partly because of his spending on media, such as a $4 radio appearance in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina. Trump was judging these investments worthwhile.

Manafort’s personal cachet was also diminished by his dodgy links to ex-clients including Ukrainian former prime minister, the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych. As Trump has already racked up a number of Russia-related gaffes, continued association was Manafort would have likely proven electorally unwise.

Corey Lewandowski, former campaign manager

Campaign manager until Trump’s team shake-up in June this year, Lewandowski was not the picture of a calm and collected operative. With a list of antics behind him such as bringing a gun to work and then suing when it was taken away from him and lacking the experience of ever having directed a national race, Lewandowski was a divisive figure from the start of Trump’s bid for the nomination.

Although Lewandowski most often accompanied Trump on the nomination campaign trail, it was Manafort, even then, who was in charge of most of the campaign’s logistics, making use of his 40 plus years of experience to do so.

Trump was clearly taken with Lewandowski’s aggressive campaign techniques, as he stood by him even when Lewandowski was charged with battery against former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields. Although the charges were later dropped, these kind of stories do not bode well for Conway’s hopes for a more women-friendly Trump.

***

Perhaps this latest round of hiring and firing will do him some good, but with only three weeks to go until absentee voting begins in some states, the new team doesn’t have much time.