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

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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