A Syrian greengrocer next to a bombed out building in the Shaar district of Aleppo, February 2014. Photo: Mohammed al-Khatieb/AFP/Getty Images
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Jeremy Bowen: I know there’s trouble in the Middle East when I need my flak jacket, gas mask and Kevlar pants

The BBC’s Middle East editor on John Kerry striking the wrong tone over Ukraine, and remembering the Aleppo souks.

I saw someone looking on sympathetically as my attempt at running for the train turned into a hop and then a hobble. It was the kind of sympathy no middle-aged person needs or wants and I didn’t turn around to look for any more when the doors of the carriage came together with a smug hiss, leaving me on the platform. At the moment my left knee, calf and Achilles tendon have various injuries, all caused by sport. Some go back to the late 1970s. The most recent was self-inflicted during a rash attempt to ski off-piste a month or so ago.

Journalists in the Middle East need to be mobile. Visits to presidential palaces, foreign ministries and embassies all matter but being on the streets is the best way to get to the heart of the matter. My physio tells me I will stop limping fairly soon. Then I’ll be able to cycle and, after that, run.

Perhaps getting my left leg to work properly will be a mixed blessing. In the past year or so, two good legs have taken me to any number of Egyptian riots and have stumbled, nervously, as I tried to wade through streets full of rubble in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. And they have trudged through the snow in miserable informal  refugee settlements for Syrians in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “Informal” means their inhabitants are barely supplied, burning pieces of plastic to keep warm and melting snow to get water.

 

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Sometimes the challenge of covering the misery and complexity of the modern Middle East is almost overwhelming. Since the Arab uprisings started at the end of 2010 the region has been in a profound process of change, which looks likely to go on for at least a generation.

Its consequences have turned millions of lives upside down and in Syria alone ended more than 100,000. Journalists have been extremely busy.

I always have a big flight case packed in my garage. It contains a flak jacket, a ballistic hel­met, vivid yellow and black Kevlar-woven “blast boxers”, assorted dressings and first-aid kits, along with a riot helmet, a gas mask and shatter-proof protective glasses. The case is my personal index of Middle Eastern trouble. I needed it all only rarely before 2011, usually because of a flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians or Lebanese. Now I take the case to most places.

 

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The international news reporting machine has turned its attention to Ukraine. I would never wish the attentions of a pack of journalists on anyone. Yet the world is in a time of trouble and bad news is going to happen somewhere. The Middle East is still pumping out stories, but for now Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin are getting top billing.

It is a relief, in a strange way. I have been travelling for more than half of the time since the uprising against Hosni Mubarak in Egypt began in January 2011. It’s refreshing to be able to hobble for the train in London.

 

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I watched a live broadcast of the American secretary of state, John Kerry, in Ukraine. The way he mocked the Russians at his news conference sounded as if he was trying to win a debate, not help settle a crisis. I think that Russia should not send its troops on to the territory of its neighbours. However, it is hard to listen to an American official talking about sovereign territory, international law and invasions without thinking about what happened in Iraq in 2003.

I am not proposing a reprise of the row over UN Security Council resolutions or whether or not the United States, the UK and their allies were acting legally or illegally but it is important to remember that many countries did not buy the west’s version, so it has to expect a sceptical response when it scolds others.

 

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If Middle East politics was a lake, it would always be turbulent. The US and UK threw in a big rock in 2003 and the waves it made are still washing up, from the Gulf to the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from the obscene amount of death in Iraq since 2003, the worst consequence of the invasion was the way it heated up sectarian tensions.

The differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims make up one of the world’s oldest religious and political quarrels. Yet the invasion’s reordering of the regional balance of power brought the conflict stretching and snarling into the new century. Events since then have made it much worse.

 

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In early March, I will be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The organisers have invited authors to bring a guest. Mine is my 13-year-old daughter, Mattie. It’s not her first time in the Middle East. In 2010, with my mother, we travelled through Lebanon and Syria.

We couldn’t do that now. Mattie loved the Old City in Damascus. She would still be able to recognise it. Physically it has barely been touched by the war, though foreigners are rare and foreign tourists extinct. Most of all she loved the old heart of Aleppo, its alleys, khans and mosques and the great citadel. Friendly traders sold us dried fruit, freshly roasted nuts, soap made from olives, embroidered cotton and a slimy nylon football shirt in Syrian colours.

Every time I see pictures of the devastation, the deserted, burnt-out souks, the toppled minarets and punctured domes, I think of the people who used to buy and sell in Aleppo’s narrow streets, of the way they smiled at my mother and daughter, and wonder what happened to them. l

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the Royal Television Society TV Journalist of the Year

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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