“The Syrian revolution is a baby – it needs nourishment”

Ewa Jasiewicz reports on the plight of the relief efforts in Syria.

We're in Ma'arrat al Numan, a front-line liberated town in Idlib province, Syria. Once home to 120,000, the population is now between 4-10,000. Families who couldn't afford to flee live in ruins, makeshift shelters and even caves. Destruction is everywhere; piles of rubble daunt the streets between bomb-axed minarets and burnt out shops. Part-collapsed apartment blocks reveal gaping living rooms. Shelling echoes daily from the Wadi Deif regime military base close by. It's mostly local Free Army fighters holding the line, along with Ahrar al Sham, and Jabhat al Nusra playing a smaller role. The scant weaponry ranges from regime-raided machine and hand guns to the "Cannon of Hell" – a launcher made out of a tractor, with cooking gas canisters for missiles. The city's sub-station, water plants and pipes have all been destroyed. Repairing the pipes is impossible due to their proximity to Wadi Deif.

The injured are ferried by fighters or medical volunteers to a "hospital in hiding" – far back from the frontline, where operations are carried out in a basement with a lamp made out of a satellite dish with half a dozen light bulbs stuck in it. The service runs on a drip-feed of aid sourced in Turkey and round-the-clock volunteer hours spread between a few dozen exhausted doctors and nurses. Ma'arrat al Numan is still a city at war.

We're in the gloomy garden of widow and mother of six Om Abid. Ahmad*, an activist and volunteer with Basmat Amal (Smile of Hope), a home-grown relief organisation, has brought us here. He's doling out cash donations of 500 Syrian pounds sent from a wealthy Syrian woman living in Saudi Arabia. It's a drop in the ocean. Cooking gas costs £S3,000 per canister up from £S1,000 two years ago, bread is £S25. water needs to be delivered by truck and costs £S500 a week and a box of thirty candles, which once cost 70, is now hitting £S300. The dark takes over at night.

Relief doesn't feel revolutionary but keeping it coming is a means to stay put and keep up the front. Basmet Amal are one of four local aid organisations feeding into a relief co-ordination committee that feeds into a broader council including military-security, social affairs, and media-comms committees.

Basmat Amal recognise the role aid can play in buying loyalties according to a donor's agenda, and how depoliticising desperation can be. Self-sufficiency is key. By opening the first primary schools in Ma'arra since the revolution began, a low priced products supermarket, cash for widows and a soap and shampoo factory in the pipeline, they hope to create autonomy and strength for the community. They still see themselves as part of a revolution that began with unarmed demonstrations, but was met with bullets, then bombs, and then warplanes, until street-protest-as suicide was no longer an option. According to Basmet Amal, 850 people have been killed, and 2,000 houses, 20 schools and 15 mosques destroyed since November 2011. 'We are fighting for our dignity' we hear again and again.

But what is the scope for people – especially women - to participate in their own relief? Can people come together and make collective decisions? "Everyone is locked in their own homes," starts Ahmed. "Everyone just cares about their own problems". "But there are always shared problems, no?" we suggest. "I suppose so, but just to get people together in one place, to feel safe, is a struggle." Shelling and gunfire rattles in the distance as he speaks. Neither landlines or mobiles work in Ma'arra, but there is internet if you have a satellite and generator. Otherwise comms are face to face, and door to door. Kinship and neighbourhood networks have been fractured by the town haemorrhaging so many residents. Who will look after your children? Who will drive you home, when fuel and cars are in such short supply? And even if you put together a group, with 90 per cent of your town in exile, who are you representing?

It's an ongoing conversation throughout our trip, "How to build participation?" If Basmet Amal have 30 volunteers now, how can they reach 100 and more? Particularly under the lengthening shadow of militarisation and sectarianism, and external regional and global interests "all wanting to eat from Syria". How do you keep up a revolution which you keep being told is a civil war, that it's gone, it belongs to 'warlords' eating the hearts of their opponents and shooting children in the face, that is going to break Palestine, and will be Iraq mark two, is something you should never have started. This is not your revolution is the message. For many of us in the West it's the same, that it's too complicated, leave it to the big boys, you can't relate to this, there's nothing you can do, this is not your revolution. Isolation and disposession creeps and the work of creating spaces of resistance and reclamation is eclipsed by a what-bleeds-leads agenda.

It's a burning hot afternoon and we're in the languid garden of the Kafranbel media centre talking solidarity with local organisers. The centre is famous for its' viral banners. For UN Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's visit, locals raised: "BRAHIMI: 'NEVER MIND BURNING THE WORLD WILLINGLY THAN HAVING ASSAD FOR ONE DAY MORE' GO FUCK YOURSELF." And "USA – YOU LIVED SEPTEMBER 11TH ONCE, WE LIVE IT EVERY DAY." "We never get visits from activists, only journalists," says local fixer Amer.* "We want to show them our demonstrations but they just say, 'Take us to the fighters'." It's a common obsession. This May Al Jazeera reported from Raqqa, central Syria but focused squarely on Al Qaeda chopping three peoples heads off and not demonstrations by public sector workers demanding wages from money looted from the central bank or protests against Sharia courts. 

We discuss the idea of a joint news-behind-the-news project that can profile struggles that mainstream media ignore. Mona* a local feminist activist working on a children's support project called Karama Bus (Dignity Bus) is lukewarm. 'Everyone in Syria knows what is going on. It's a good idea but we do not have the capacity. We literally do not have the people on the ground. Too many Syrian activists are outside in Turkey or Lebanon. They need to be here'. We talk about skills-sharing on facilitating meetings and organising but stress unequivocally that this is dangerous territory for foreign activists because it reproduces colonial dynamics of white Westerners telling Arabs what to do and how to organise; the NGOised "facilitator" that conducts, regulates and wields power over locals. But co-training with Syrian and Arabic speaking activists, is agreed, could be useful...

The thread continues back in Ma'arra. We eat breakfast with a young medic who treats fighters on the Front. "You were in Kafranbel? They have three functioning hospitals there, we only have one and we are on the Front! I don't understand why they don't help us," he says. Emergencies take up energy. "Our revolution is a baby," he explains. "It needs milk, it needs nourishment, it needs to grow. Of course we want people to be organising their own representation, but that's walking, that's further down the line. For now, we need to survive." As if on cue a war plane tears through the sky above us. He starts to utter prayers. His wife, an organiser, but still unable to go to the internet café without a male relative, begins to breathe shallow and fan herself. It passes over. We sip our tea in silence until we can find our words to talk again.

*Names changed to protect identity

A shorter version of this piece appeared in last week's New Statesman magazine

People walk past damaged buildings in Ma'arrat al Numan, Idlib province in March 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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Marine Le Pen’s new disguise: a bid to rebrand her far-right party as the “National Rally”

Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism.

Marine Le Pen had just declared: “When foreigners are in France, they must respect the law and the people” when chants of “On est chez nous!” (“We are at home!”) broke out in the audience. French flags were waved in the air.

On 11 March, Le Pen, 49, was re-elected leader of her far-right party, Front National (FN), and announced it was to be renamed Rassemblement National (“National Rally”). “It must be a rallying cry, a call for those who have France and the French at their heart to join us,” she declared at the party’s conference in Lille, northern France.

It’s a pivotal moment for the party her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founded in 1972 and led until 2011. After going from a “jackass” far-right outfit known for its xenophobia, to the nationalist, anti-immigration party defeated in the final round of the 2017 French presidential election by the liberal candidate Emmanuel Macron, its goal is now to move “from opposition and into government”, Le Pen said.

For the FN leader, this is also a decisive moment. Le Pen’s credibility was damaged by her weak performance in the run-off debate and polls show her campaign eroded the political gains made during the party’s decade-long “de-demonisation”. “Her image is clearly tarnished,” Valérie Igounet, an expert on the French far right, told me. “But she is still supported by the party.” The FN claims its membership is around 80,000; Igounet says it is likely to have fallen to 50,000.

The proposed name will be put to a membership vote – as Le Pen’s re-election was, though she was the only candidate – but the move has already prompted concern.

Asked if they were happy with the rebrand, only 52 per cent of FN members answered yes. “It is a name that has negative connotations in French history,” Igounet said. Rassemblement National was a collaborationist party in the 1940s. It was also used in 1965 by defeated far-right presidential candidate Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, whose campaign was run by Jean-Marie Le Pen. “For a party that wants to free itself from Le Pen’s father, it’s a surprising choice,” Igounet said. Another political organisation, Rassemblement pour la France, claims the FN has no right to the name.

Not all of the FN’s fundamentals have been abandoned. The logo, a red, white and blue flame inspired by an Italian neo-fascist party, remains. Membership surveys show 98 per cent still approve of the anti-immigration rhetoric, Igounet said.

Le Pen hopes the rebrand will enable new political alliances. Thierry Mariani, a former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy and member of the right-wing Républicains, has called for an alliance with the FN (which, he said, “has evolved”). But the Républicains’ leader, Laurent Wauquiez, is firmly opposed: “As long as I am leader, there will be no alliance with the FN,” he vowed. “The FN want to make alliances, but they have nowhere to go,” said Antoine de Cabanes, a researcher on the far right for the think tank Transform! Europe.

Can Le Pen’s party really be “de-demonised”? The former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, who is currently touring Europe, was invited to speak at the Lille conference. “Let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour,” he told activists, to rapturous applause.

Bannon has also praised Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, Marine’s more conservative 28-year-old niece, as the party’s “rising star”. The younger Le Pen is on a “break” from French politics but addressed the US Republicans in Washington in February, where she declared her ambition to “make France great again”. Marion is tipped as a possible future leader. “She has the right name,” noted De Cabanes.

Marine Le Pen insisted she didn’t want to “make an ally” of Bannon, but rather to “listen to someone who defied expectation to win against all odds”. Yet even her father, a Holocaust denier whose politics are closer to Bannon’s than his daughter’s, described the choice of speaker as “not exactly de-demonising the party”.

It was not an isolated incident. On 10 March, Davy Rodríguez, a parliamentary assistant to Le Pen, was forced to resign after he was filmed using a racial slur in Lille.

The FN defended Bannon’s invitation on the grounds that “he embodies the rejection of the establishment, of the European Union and the system of politics and the media”. Le Pen called President Macron’s politics a “great downgrading of the middle and working class” and declared her party “the defender of the workers, the employees, the sorrowful farmers”.

The road to the 2022 presidential contest includes four elections – municipal, departmental, regional and European –  in which Le Pen hopes to present her renamed party as the working-class alternative to Macron’s bourgeois elitism. But in Lille, activists cheered wildly not when Le Pen spoke about the road ahead, but when she declared: “Legal and illegal immigration are not bearable any more!” Plus ça change… 

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game