Girls in Rochdale. Photo: Getty Images
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How the Rochdale grooming case exposed British prejudice

Daniel Trilling reports from Rochdale in the aftermath of a trial which saw nine men convicted of rape, trafficking and conspiracy.

“Just because we live here, it doesn’t alter our standards in morals,” Tom says as he hands me a mug of tea. We’re sitting in his living room at the front of a neat council semi in Heywood, on the outskirts of Rochdale in Greater Manchester. Four years ago, his 15-year-old daughter fell victim to a gang of men who were grooming young teenage girls for sex. In May this year, after an agonising and protracted struggle to bring the case to trial, nine of the men were convicted of offences ranging from rape to trafficking and “conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child”.

It was not the first such case to come to light in Britain, but the trial provoked outraged coverage, pundits reaching for quick and easy ways to explain the terrible crime. To some, race or religion played a defining role – all five of the victims were white, while their abusers were all Muslims of British Pakistani or Afghan origin. Others pointed to a defect of character in the girls themselves which, in the words of one commentator, made them “happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone”.
For Tom, it is this blaming of the victims that hurts most. The mantra, originating from police officers, has been that the girls came from “chaotic, council estate backgrounds”, as if this somehow lessened the crimes, or explained them. “[My daughter] wasn’t a bad kid,” Tom says. “She wasn’t into stealing or shoplifting. And she certainly didn’t ask for it. No matter what you think of society and the way it’s going, girls aren’t that cheap. We’re talking about children. And it could be anybody’s children.”
It was the summer of 2008 when Tom and his wife – married for the best part of 20 years – began to notice that something was wrong with their eldest daughter. She was cheekier than her siblings, and a bit more mischievous, Tom says, but she would socialise with her family and always be home by ten at night. That July, however, her behaviour changed “almost overnight”. The girl became withdrawn and stopped doing what she was told. She would use “coarse and vulgar language” in front of her family, and started to come home tipsy or, at times, much more seriously drunk. After a family argument, she moved out of home to stay with one of her friends.
Yet nothing prepared Tom and his wife for what they would discover a few weeks later, one night in August. The police phoned to say that their daughter had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage – she had smashed up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood. When detectives began to interview her, however, she poured out an awful story: she had been raped, on repeated occasions, by a gang of men. They would ply her with vodka or beer and threaten her with violence if she did not do as she was told. Was she telling the truth? Tom had arrived to collect his daughter from the police station and he remembers how, on their way out of the interview room, an officer turned to his daughter and said, “I believe you, because there’s somebody else come into the station and said the same thing.”
By accident, officers had stumbled on a crime of frightening proportions. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were being trafficked around the north-west of England. Men who worked in the takeaway trade or as taxi drivers – professions that gave them unsupervised access to young teenagers – were grooming girls by offering them gifts, slowly winning their trust, and then forcing them to have sex. Some victims were driven between Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere to have sex with men for money. Others were duped into thinking they were in a relationship.
Many of the abusers were known only by their nicknames: “Master”, “Tiger”, “Car Zero”, “the Ugly One”. The gang employed a teenage girl – her peers nicknamed her “the Honey Monster” – to lure in fresh victims. She was paid a £200 finder’s fee for each one. (The police did not charge her because they decided that she, too, had been a victim of the abuse.)
As Tom explained to me, this was a carefully planned crime. “They [the abusers] don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a free kebab if you have sex with me’ – that doesn’t happen. They become your friend. Girls are told, as my daughter was always told, don’t speak to strangers – but these men aren’t strangers any more.” Children like Tom’s daughter would go to the Balti House and other takeaways where gang members worked to socialise. The men would befriend them, over a period of weeks or months, offering free food or free taxi rides home. “It made me feel like I was pretty,” Tom’s daughter told police. Then they would be invited to a seedy flat above the takeaway, or driven out to the countryside, and told they had to repay the favour. “It’s part of the deal,” Tom’s daughter was told the first time she was raped. “I gave you vodka, now you give me something.” Only then, after working to build up trust, would the threats of violence begin. One witness told of how one man slit his own wrist and then threatened to cut her throat if she did not have sex with him.
But in August 2008, the gang had been uncovered: the police found a suspect’s DNA on Tom’s daughter’s underwear; two men were arrested and charged. Yet the victims’ ordeal was far from over. Months went by without news. 
It took the police 11 months to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then decided in July 2009 not to prosecute, for fear that Tom’s daughter would not be a credible witness. Only in late 2010 was the case taken up in earnest and arrests made that would eventually bring the gang to trial.
Yet, in the months that followed Tom’s daughter’s arrest, she continued to be abused and her parents, with no support from social workers, were unable to prevent it. Worried that the police were on to them, the gang passed her to Abdul Aziz, 41, a taxi driver, who would transport her between houses where she would be raped by up to five men in one night, several times a week.
For two years, the authorities knew a terrible crime was happening, but nothing was done to protect the victims. (The five girls who tes­tified in court represent a fraction of the victims. To date, the police have identified at least 47 suspects.) Rochdale is not the only town where grooming has taken place, but could this have happened anywhere? Why, for instance, did there seem to be such a steady supply of new victims?
“We’ve certainly got a specialism in this town,” Jonathan Rigg says, as he shows me around the school that his company runs for children who have dropped out of the education system. It has recently been given a glowing report by Ofsted inspectors. “If it was engineering or IT, I think it would be celebrated. But just because it’s childcare we all keep our heads down and duck under the table.”
Rigg is the director of Meadows Care, the largest provider of private care homes in Roch­dale. With 47 homes in the borough, run by companies ranging from independent local firms like Rigg’s to branches of private-equity conglomerates, it is something of a growth industry. In the fallout from the grooming trial, the issue of private care homes has loomed large, and the homes have been blamed for dumping large numbers of vulnerable children, from all over the country, on Rochdale’s streets. (For context, Haringey in north London, a similar-sized borough, has just two private care homes, compared to the 47 in Rochdale.)
Here’s why: when a local authority anywhere in the country needs to take a child into care and it doesn’t have any free beds of its own, it sends out an email to private providers. Some local authorities will email all the companies they know of; others will have agreed on a list of preferred providers. But the principle is the same – whoever can offer the home and support that best fits the child, at the most attractive price, gets the commission. Like any other industry, children’s care homes have concentrated where conditions are most favourable. The north-west of England, with its modest salary costs and property prices, has proved an ideal location. In Rochdale, vulnerable children from all over the country are funnelled into homes, supposedly monitored by social workers who may be as far away as Essex or Exeter.
To an outside observer, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. In May, the leader of Rochdale Council, Colin Lambert, told the BBC that the concentration of private care homes in the town had created a “loophole” whereby “the safety of children is not being guaranteed”. “Unless the child is from the borough of Rochdale we have no say in whether the child should be here, whether the home is providing what it should [and] we get no reports back on how the child is progressing . . . It is a scar and a disgrace on this country’s record of caring for vulnerable children.”
Press reports of the grooming trial have emphasised that one of the five girls who testified was in care at the time of her abuse – not at a home operated by Rigg’s company, but at one owned by a private-equity firm.
Nonetheless most of the grooming victims were not in care; like Tom’s daughter, they lived with their families. According to Simon Dan­czuk, Rochdale’s Labour MP, the real failure lies with social services. During that crucial delay – the months after Tom’s daughter’s arrest in August 2008 – you might have expected social workers to intervene to protect her and other girls. Since the trial, other Rochdale parents have come forward to say that police were told about similar abuse as far back as 2002. In 2004, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about the grooming of girls taking place in West Yorkshire in Bradford and Keighley. Certainly by 2008, any local authority should have been aware of the existence of this crime. But according to Danczuk, when health workers for Rochdale’s crisis intervention team, an NHS clinic offering advice on abortions and sexual health to vulnerable young women, alerted social services about girls they suspected were being abused, their concerns were ignored. According to Danczuk, they were told that the girls were making “life choices” and that they were sleeping with their abusers voluntarily.
“Social services believed that these girls were choosing to be prostitutes,” Danczuk says now, “and they concluded, absolutely wrongly, that they should be allowed to get on with it.”
It was not privatisation, but prejudice, that enabled this crime to continue for as long as it did. Rochdale Council has gone some way towards acknowledging this: in June 2012, its new chief executive, Jim Taylor, acknowledged that Rochdale had “missed some opportunities to offer support to [the grooming victims] in 2008 and 2009” and promised that staff today were better informed, “to such an extent that they now see child sexual exploitation as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending”.
Nonetheless, Danczuk believes the debate over private care homes is being encouraged “to distract attention from failure by the local authority. If the issue is about on-street grooming, then I’m puzzled as to why so much emphasis has been put on children’s homes.”
Rigg feels that businesses such as his are being made the scapegoat and that, as a result, other local authorities have begun to avoid placing teenage girls in his homes. The New Statesman has seen email evidence, for instance, that on 26 July his company was offered a placement by a local authority in Yorkshire, only for it to be withdrawn an hour later with the explanation: “We have since been advised by Rochdale Social Services not to place vulnerable girls in and around the Rochdale area.” When the New Statesman contacted Rochdale Council, a spokesman denied that the borough was giving this advice.
Whatever one’s views on private-sector involvement in such a crucial public service, one can’t deny that confusion of this kind will only end up harming children’s welfare. For better or worse, Rochdale has built up significant resources and expertise in childcare – and it now risks being unable to offer these to the people who need it most.
Back in Heywood at Tom’s house, we talk through all this as a couple of ageing Staffordshire terriers pad around the floor between us. It must have made you very angry to have been let down so comprehensively, I say. “Not angry,” he replies. “More . . . lost, really. No one would listen to me.”
When some people feel lost, they become vulnerable to all kinds of predators. On the evening of 23 February 2012, a crowd of 200 – mostly teenage boys – gathered outside the Balti House takeaway on Market Street. The grooming case had finally come to trial and tensions were on the rise. Ignoring the banner above the door of the takeaway that pleaded “Under New Management”, the crowd shouted racist abuse and hurled bricks and other missiles at the shop window. Some youths chanted “EDL” – the initials of the far-right English Defence League, though the group later denied that it had had any role in the evening’s violence.
In Rochdale, which is home to approximately 20,000 people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, far-right activists spied an opportunity.
It was in nearby Oldham, in 2001, that tensions between white and Asian locals, exacerbated by neo-Nazi provocateurs, had boiled over into a riot. Then, in 2004, the British National Party (BNP) won a council seat in Keighley in West Yorkshire by hijacking the campaign of a local mother whose daughter had been abused. The grooming case seemed ripe for exploitation: all the girls were white, all the accused were Asian Muslim men, and they had displayed a searing contempt for their victims. “You white people train them in sex and drinking,” one of the accused men told the jury during the trial, “so when they come to us they are fully trained.”
Over the months that followed, both the BNP and the EDL held rallies in and around Roch­dale. A close relative of one of the victims even joined the BNP after receiving a party leaflet through the door, but left soon afterwards when he encountered the neo-Nazi ideology that lay beneath the surface talk of “fair” treatment for white people.
That was about as far as they got. The hoped-for confrontation never came, and to date neither group has been able to sink roots in the town. Yet the presence of the far right, and the fear of a violent backlash, were keenly felt by many Asians. Taxi drivers in particular have experienced verbal abuse, and even violence. One driver told the Manchester Evening News that many of his colleagues have given up on the job because they see it as too dangerous. Worse still, according to the youth worker Mohammed Shafiq, it has intensified what he describes as a “siege mentality” among many of his Muslim peers.
I met Shafiq at a Pakistani cafe near Rochdale train station, in an area of flat-fronted Victorian terraces where many of the town’s Asians live or work. It was Ramadan, and as evening drew near, people were hurrying home for the iftar meal. Shafiq told me that he first heard about child sexual exploitation in 2006, when he encountered a mother in Blackburn whose daughter had been abused. “At the time, she was blaming Islam. She had gone to the mosque leaders for help but they had slammed the door in her face.”
This wasn’t out of contempt, he explained, but rather a complete unwillingness to accept that it was anything to do with them. “If you look at it from a religious point of view,” Shafiq said, “what these guys did was evil. Islam does not sanction these sort of activities or these crimes, so, from the point of view of a mosque, it was, ‘This has nothing to do with us; we don’t encourage this sort of behaviour. If people go out and do this sort of thing, it’s them who should be held responsible.’”
Any community faced with the discovery of child abusers in its midst will find it hard to accept; after all, colleagues, friends – even family members – may be involved. Two Muslim Labour councillors gave character references for one of the men on trial and, according to Shafiq, “there are some parts of our community that are still in denial. People saw the BNP talking about this, put two and two together and said ‘this is just a BNP conspiracy’, against Muslims and against Pakistanis.”
Some white officials, in seeking to prevent the growth of racism, have tried to police debate. A senior council official told Shafiq that he was “doing the work of the BNP” by tackling the matter in public at all.
Danczuk acknowledges that, in the past, politicians have failed to discuss this type of crime sensitively. His Labour colleague Jack Straw, for instance, made comments last year about how some British Pakistani men are “fizzing and popping with testosterone” and see white girls as “easy meat”. Rather, says Danczuk, when race does appear to be a factor in child sexual exploitation “you have to raise it calmly and sensibly, and acknowledge that you can’t generalise on these types of issues. Because if you don’t, then right-wing extremists will come forward and say that mainstream parties are ducking the issue.”
What complicates matters is that Muslim and Asian men are the targets of racism. Child abuse is committed by people of all races and religions, and most child abusers in Britain are white. Although a disproportionate number of Asian men have come to trial for grooming, they represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s Asian population. Just 50 out of a total UK population of 1.2 million British Pakistanis have been convicted of this crime, yet the lurid press coverage of “Asian sex gangs” gives an entirely different impression. To some observers, it has uncomfortable parallels with the way that African-Caribbean men were demonised as “muggers” in the 1970s and 1980s.
The double standard is clear to see when other child abuse cases come to light. Last month, five men in Derby were found guilty of trawling the streets for vulnerable girls, then giving them drink and drugs before having sex with them. All but one of the men convicted in the Derby case were white, and though the Rochdale case dominated the headlines for days, only the Times and the Guardian reported this verdict. When, at the end of June, it was reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers are carrying out a rare joint inquiry into why so many police officers use their position to rape, sexually assault or harass women, it did not spark a national debate over the “culture of misogyny” among policemen.
Nathalie Walters, chief executive of Safe and Sound, a Derby-based charity that works to tackle child sexual exploitation, argues that the key to preventing the crime is well-informed, open discussion. Safe and Sound has trained well over 2,000 Derby social workers, youth workers and police officers in recognising the warning signs of abuse, and both the city council and the local police force have specialist responses to child exploitation. All the local agencies meet regularly to share information, and the recent convictions there are the product of this proactive approach.
“Any child could be a victim of this crime – boys and girls, and not just those living in care,” Walters tells me. “There’s a need to move away from the myth that it’s only Asian men who perpetrate this crime. Child exploitation happens in many ways; young people can be approached in person, via the internet or through mobile phones, and offenders can come from any community and walk of life.” And Sue Bere­lowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, recently told the House of Commons home affairs select committee: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
In Rochdale, Mohammed Shafiq told me, people were inching their way towards being able to talk openly. “The progress is on the street. It’s in the cafés, in the takeaways, with people socialising in the gym. People are talking about this. There has been utter disgust at the crime, and shame that someone from our community has done this, and sympathy for the families who have had to suffer.” But, he added: “I think we’ve got a chattering class in London, where anything to do with race, anything to do with working-class people, they rub their hands with glee and decide that they’re going to inflame this. And because they [the abusers] were Asian, because they were Muslim, it just fitted their agenda.”
On 9 May 2012, the Rochdale grooming trial reached its conclusion. Nine men were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 77 years in prison. More arrests, and more convictions, are likely to follow. Throughout the trial, Shabir Ahmed, the 59-year-old ringleader of the gang, showed no remorse. He tore out clumps of his own chest hair in the witness box and made a female court interpreter run crying from the room. Delivering a bilious rant from the dock, he dismissed the accusations as “white lies”, cursed the “bent bastards” who had brought him to trial and denounced everyone from the prosecution lawyer and Theresa May to Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
A month later, Ahmed was convicted, in a second trial, on 30 counts of child rape. This time his victim was Asian. The abuse had gone on for longer than a decade, but it was not until after Ahmed’s arrest in the grooming case that his victim found the courage to give the police full details of what she had suffered.
In the autumn, the various inquiries into what went so badly wrong in Rochdale will begin to make their findings public. We already know that Ahmed was motivated above all by contempt for women: all women, and not just those of a different race or religion. But a truth that may prove much harder to accept is that our own prejudices – about who falls victim to the crime of grooming and why, about what motivates the perpetrators, and about where the system is failing – enabled him and his gang to operate unhindered for so long. 
Some names have been changed
Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman. His book, “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right”, will be published by Verso next month


Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood