Show Hide image

Syria has been at war for years – yet, in Damascus, life goes on

On a visit to the conflict-riven country I get a glimpse of its hidden treasures and a wide view of the country’s destruction.

Driving into a country at war is always an uncertain business. When I arrived in the Syrian capital on a Saturday evening in November, the last thing I expected to see was a line of giant coloured letters and a big red heart spelling out “I love Damascus” on a roundabout, and young people taking selfies in front of it. Or to end up the next evening dancing with students dressed as ghouls and vampires at a lively Hallowe’en party in the Old City.

“I took a decision a couple of years ago: let’s enjoy life – we could be dead tomorrow,” shouted George, the owner of the Red Bar where the party was taking place, over pounding disco music.

Old Damascus hides its treasures behind shutters and doors, and the next day one such door led me into Jabri House, a magical courtyard café with a tinkling fountain and dotted with mirrors, copper jugs and caged songbirds. The passage was lined with framed recommendations from pre-war travel articles but it’s a long time since the place has seen a tourist. The only customers were a young couple sucking apple-scented tobacco from a shisha pipe. Khalid, 28, is an accountant, and Gunnar, 21, an economics student with long, glittery nails. Gunnar told me she and her mother left for Turkey in 2014 after violent clashes in their district but she was “treated very badly there”, so returned a few months ago. “We don’t have money but my heart is in Syria,” she said.

Khalid said many of his friends had fled to avoid military conscription but his poor eyesight got him out. “I have friends who went to Germany and they tell me there they have electricity, wifi, everything, but they are unhappy,” he said.

“People have become used to the situation,” said Israel Jabri, the café owner. “Before when they heard shelling, they ran into the road, as if I knocked over this jug of water and everyone jumped from the table. Now they just stay and continue to drink their coffee.”

Indeed, many new bars have opened nearby. A businessman who recently moved back from Lebanon took me to a restaurant called Haretna that was packed with people eating, drinking, smoking, playing cards and watching Chelsea play Everton. Rebels still hold the neighbourhood of Jobar less than a mile away, from where they fire in mortars and rockets, though far less frequently than a year or two ago.

Yet as the darkness in the streets outside indicated, life in Damascus has other problems, caused by the regime’s international isolation. “Prices are soaring. The Syrian pound is just 10 per cent of what it was five years ago, there are endless power cuts and there is little fuel,” Jabri said.

With the war entering a sixth winter, people are tired. This is a police state, so they are careful what they say. But it is clear that, given a choice between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Islamist rebels, many would rather the former.

It is Assad who has forced that choice, deliberately releasing extremists from jail and turning a blind eye to jihadists entering Syria while focusing his firepower on the moderate opposition. Over the past year, since he admitted that his army was struggling, the Russians have turned around the war with their campaign of air strikes. So confident is Assad that the regime recently welcomed a group of British and American journalists, of whom I was one. At the “State of Play” conference, which we had been brought to attend, the tone was defiant. We were repeatedly told that the problem in Syria was terrorists from Turkey, Saudi, Qatar and the West.

After the final session I was whisked with a few British delegates to meet Assad in his palace on a hill, looking out over the twinkling lights of Damascus. He told us he knew people didn’t like his regime but at least it provided services, from courts to hospitals and rubbish collection. “So they feel when we had a state, even with all the flaws they thought very bad and wanted to revolt against, it was still much better than a society where if you say a word against Prophet Muhammad they will shoot you.”

Nowhere is this choice more stark than in east Aleppo, where thousands of civilians have been trapped between Russian air strikes and rebel groups. Over the past few weeks, bombs and shells rained down in an offensive that has led to Syrian forces capturing most of the east, including the Old City, and reportedly shooting people dead on the spot.

Aleppo seems another world from Dam­ascus. The distance is less than 200 miles but the journey there is eight and a half hours along a road of destruction. The only route into Aleppo now is from the south-east past apocalyptic scenes: hollowed-out buildings, plumes of smoke, lives turned into rubble and ashes. Yet even within Aleppo, it is two worlds. As you travel round the ring road east to west, suddenly you are in a place of parks, restaurants, shops and billboards advertising the new Tom Cruise film.

There was no way for us to go into the east of the city. But we visited the industrial area recaptured in June, which once had 1,800 factories and now is rubble. The ancient souk in the old part of the city used to contain eight miles of shops. Now everything is burned out and ruined, tailors’ dummies scattered along one side and the only inhabitants stray cats.

If, as now seems likely, the regime captures all of Aleppo, it will control the five biggest cities in Syria. But what will Assad be left with? A traumatised, divided nation where six million have fled overseas and ghosts and destruction are everywhere.

Christina Lamb is the chief foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times. Her latest book is “Nujeen: One Girl’s Incredible Journey from War-Torn Syria in a Wheelchair” (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.