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.

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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