An Assad billboard in the pro-government area of Aleppo. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Bowen: Why I tweet pictures of food from warzones

In Damascus, the war seems to have receded, and Bashar al-Assad looks more comfortable than ever.

The big conclusion I take away from ten days in Damascus is that the regime of Bashar al-Assad seems more comfortable than at any time since the war started in 2011. On one level, that doesn’t seem logical. The Syrian president has lost control of large parts of the country. The jihadists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate, are on the rise. Groups that include the Free Syrian Army are more than holding their own in the south.

But in Damascus, the war seems to have receded. The city no longer shakes quite so much from the cracks and booms of outgoing artillery fire. The Syrian armed forces have taken ground around the capital, and negotiated local ceasefires. Rebels are still fighting and plenty of people are still dying. Syria’s war has pulled in all its neighbours, in one way or another. But President Assad appears to have more possibilities now.

His confidence has been increasing since his close shave with American airstrikes last year after his regime was accused of using chemical weapons. From the regime’s point of view, Barack Obama blinked first. Giving up chemical weapons was a small price to pay to avoid American firepower.

 

After the air strikes

More than ever, Syrian government officials present the war as a simple choice: Assad, or the bloodthirsty killers of Islamic State and al-Qaeda. American plans to arm the opposition, as they stand now, will not do much damage, let alone destroy the jihadists. But US air strikes can stop the jihadi advance.

The United States, which was close to using its incomparable strike power against the regime little more than a year ago, is now bombing in Syria in a way that makes President Assad more secure. No wonder the view from the windows of the Presidential palace in Damascus has improved.

 

Winter of discontent

The first time I managed to get a visa to report from wartime Damascus it was very different. After street demonstrations started in Syria in 2011 and then turned into a shooting war, the Assad regime at first let in very few foreign journalists. It took until the bitterly cold month of January 2012 to get to Damascus with my team. I found, to my amazement, that armed rebels had taken over parts of the suburbs. At that time you could drive from the centre of Damascus, pass through the last government checkpoint and then a few minutes later see the revolutionary flag and armed men, bundled up against the winter, heated up by their determination to bring down Assad.

 

Shooting the messenger

In the visits that followed to Damascus and other cities held by the Syrian regime, I reported on his supporters as well as his enemies. It became much harder to cross into the rebel-controlled suburbs of Damascus as the front lines hardened and the Syrian military turned its heavy weapons and air force against the rebels, but we did it when it was possible.

I was pleased with our reporting. We were managing to see both sides. Even in regime territory there was more freedom to move than journalists had in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, or in Libya under Colonel Gaddafi. But I found out as well that the old saying about shooting the messenger applies in the age of social media too. Not surprisingly given the slaughter in the country, Syria polarises opinion, almost as much as the long war between Israelis and Palestinians.

Opponents of President Assad on Twitter reacted with fury to any suggestion that he had supporters. They still do. President Assad has many enemies. But he still has men who are prepared to join the Syrian armed forces and perhaps die for his vision of Syria. They believe they are fighting for their families and for their country against foreign jihadists who would kill them if they could. If President Assad didn’t have support that counted, he would most likely have been swept away in 2011, just like Messrs Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia and Gaddafi of Libya. Instead, he fights on, and so does the army.

 

An unhappy city

If I hadn’t been in Syria in the last few weeks I would have gone to Jerusalem. It has been clear since the summer that serious trouble was brewing in the holy, unhappy city. The appalling killings in the synagogue in west Jerusalem of four Jewish men who were praying were a warning of what could lie ahead. The Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as they have been since the second intifada began 14 years ago. The current position is not sustainable. It guarantees more bloodshed.

 

Feeding the trolls

The first time I went to a war, in El Salvador in 1989, I was struck by the fact that tomatoes were on sale a few streets away from the centre of the fighting in the capital San Salvador. My conscience bothered me. Should I have included that small piece of relative normality in my report? I didn’t at the time. But ever since I have wondered how to reflect the vestiges of normal life that can exist in the most abnormal places.

Recently, as well as reporting on what’s happening for the BBC, I have taken to tweeting pictures of food. I’ve sent plenty from Damascus. That’s partly because I think food tells you a lot about a society. But also because it is important to show how people live as well as how they die. I have had a quite a severe trolling from those who disapprove, on the grounds that anything other than the horror of war is a distortion and a distraction. I disagree. If you don’t like it, trolls, don’t look at the pictures. 

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. Follow him: @BowenBBC

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

Steve Bannon with Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump was Steve Bannon's creation. What happens now he's gone?

Steve Bannon championed the "economic nationalism" agenda which drove Trump's election win and the early days of his presidency.

Steve Bannon, perhaps more than any single person other than the man himself, is the reason Donald Trump is President of the United States.

Bannon is a choleric figure who once described himself as a “Leninist” who wanted to “destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down”. It must be said that he has come pretty close to doing so. He served as chief architect of Trump's presidential campaign from the Republican national convention until election day, and then as the senior strategist in the Trump White House, a position from which he has just been ousted.

Why have I heard the name recently? It's very familiar, but in a weird context.

Well, until Friday he was the senior adviser to the president and one of the most powerful people in America.

No, that wasn't it. Something about... this doesn't sound right, but something about sucking his own...

...yeah. That was a quote from a gloriously unhinged phone call between Ryan Lizza, a reporter for the New Yorker magazine, and Anthony Scaramucci, who spent a week as White House Communications Director before being ignominiously canned, in part for giving this quote.

What he said exactly was: “I'm not Steve Bannon, I'm not trying to suck my own cock.”

Can Bannon actually do that?

According to rock and roll legend, Marilyn Manson had two of his own ribs surgically removed in order to autofellate; Bannon, by comparison, looks like he had two dozen ribs for breakfast already. The man is a crepuscular Hutt who looks like he'd rather smother his own firstborn than even enter a yoga studio. I would bet good money that he cannot.

I think Scaramucci meant it figuratively.

So apart from that, why is this such big news?

Bannon was responsible for Trump's victory, and for shaping his early presidency. He came on board at a key moment in the presidential race, after the debacle of the Republican convention, and was campaign CEO through to election day. He helped shape the Trump campaign into the white supremacist dog-whistle-fest that it became. The idea that, far from building coalitions, it was possible to run a campaign that would play directly to the core white male base was, in part, Bannon's particular inspiration.

As the former chief of the far-right news site Breitbart, Bannon was one of the key figures in the online radicalisation of the cluster of more-or-less white supremacist Hentai-fetishists who have come to be known as the “alt-right”. He is the thread that links Gamergate, the misogynistic troll campaign against female influence in video game production and industry news coverage, to what became Trump's rabid online following of lonely, racist white guys. The masses who became keyboard-warriors for Trump from their parents' basement, hanging out on The_Donald subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board, were an army built by Bannon and Breitbart.

He popularised “economic nationalism”, a position based on the the twistedly brilliant insight that while making race the naked focus of the campaign would run up too hard against American political taboos, you could successfully use “trade” and “immigration” as effective proxies.

From Bannon also in part came the idea that Trump ought to run as much against the “mainstream media” as against his nominal opponent, Hillary Clinton. He brought his anarchic, burn-it-all-down ideology across from Breitbart – the website which Bannon once bragged about having made “the platform for the alt-right” – almost wholesale.

Most likely, Bannon is the reason it took Trump so long to condemn the neo-Nazis marching in support of his presidency in Charlottesville last weekend, and was responsible for the near-fatal cognitive dissonance the president visibly struggled with when he did so.

Why is Bannon out?

The Trump White House has been riven with divisions and factional warfare from the very beginning. In particular, Bannon, whose ex-wife once claimed that he said that he didn't want his children “going to school with Jews” (he denies this), butted heads with Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner and his faction of Wall Street-friendly pinstripe-drones and sundry moderate Republican clingers.

Bannon was the figurehead and leader of the nationalist, alt-right faction surrounding the president, while Kushner was the figurehead for the Wall Street moderates in his administration. In the early days of the administration Bannon seemed set for victory over the Kushnerites – he had installed himself on the National Security Council and had the president's ear. Trump's early moves – the travel-ban, leaving NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – all had Bannon's fingerprints all over them.

Early on in the administration Bannon also clashed with Trump's first chief of staff, former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus. A lifelong adenoidal Republican functionary, the result of a secret government experiment to breed a human being entirely without a spine, Priebus reportedly made peace with Bannon despite constant schoolyard bullying from most of the president's team, and the two formed an unlikely alliance within the White House.

But the president is nothing if not mercurial in his affections, and he appeared to sour on both Priebus and Bannon in later months, especially after Bannon was featured on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Great Manipulator”, which is said to have irritated the thin-skinned president.

In July, in a chaotic shake-up of his White House staff, Trump replaced Priebus with a retired Marine Corps general, John Kelly, and tasked him with bringing a semblance of militaristic order to his administration. Once Priebus was gone, Bannon became the target of Kelly's next purge, especially as events in Charlottesville played out.

What does this mean for Trump's agenda?

In the first instance, Trump and his supporters will hope that some of the hailstorm of criticism he's been receiving following his apparent endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia a week ago will abate following Bannon's exit.

The bat-shit crazy impromptu press conference the president gave on Tuesday was illuminating in that it showed the faultines in Trump's advice, between advisers telling him to condemn the Nazis and others pushing the Bannonite view that the “alt-left” were equally at fault and that there was “blame on both sides”.

This is the way Trump operates. Again and again, he floats half-baked ideas to see what will stick. After Charlottesville, he tried things Bannon's way – the Breitbart chief has long courted the nationalist right – but, unluckily for Bannon, the narcissistic president found that the ratings and reviews for that approach were poor.

As far as Trump's agenda is concerned, it seems unlikely that Bannon's departure will change the president's behaviour much at this point. The damage is, in a way, done; the course Bannon helped Trump chart is now set, and whether or not Bannon has his hand directly on the tiller, his ideological influence will still be felt in everything Trump does, because more than anyone else Trump was a Steve Bannon creation.

What about the balance of power in the White House?

Now that is likely to change dramatically without Bannon.

With a few exceptions – like Miller – the most influential advisers remaining in the clown-car White House are globalists and militarists. According to a Buzzfeed report, Bannon leaves behind an executive dominated by “hawks and internationalists” like Kushner, economic adviser and former Goldman Sachs executive Gary Cohn, and National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster.

Bannon was a “voice for restraint” against the military adventurism such as missile-strikes against Syria and increased troop numbers in Afghanistan, according to the report.

Have we seen the last of Bannon?

Unfortunately not. On Friday, Bannon told Joshua Green, the author of Devil's Bargain, a book about Bannon's rise to power: “I'm leaving the White House and I'm going to war for Trump against his opponents – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in corporate America.”

What that means is a return to Breitbart, which is likely to become the administration's media mouthpiece even more than before. Bannon will take up the position of Executive Chairman of the publication. “Breitbart's pace of global expansion will only accelerate with Steve back,” Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said in a statement. “The sky's the limit.”

One Breitbart staffer simply tweeted: “WAR”.

However, there is already speculation that Bannon will return to Trump's side when – or if – the president begins in earnest to run for re-election in 2020.

And in the meantime, Bannon's exit has left the odious Stephen Miller, in many ways Bannon's ideological protege, as Trump's senior policy adviser.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.