François Mitterrand: The great deceiver

François Mitterrand’s career was an extraordinary catalogue of political switches and personal cover-ups – but he remains arguably the most successful left-wing leader that western Europe has ever seen.

Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936)

Most political observers can trot out Keynes’s remark but it does not follow that political leaders are mere ventriloquists. Even the most unintellectual and anti-intellectual have to decide to which academic scribbler or scribblers they are going to enslave themselves. And how politicians put different ideas together makes a critical difference to the politics they pursue. Just compare varieties of liberalism and conservatism – and communism and fascism – under different leaders.

Moreover, many of the most successful political leaders are not “exempt from any intellectual influence”; on the contrary, for some, intellectualism is a central part of their political personality and appeal. As the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “People don’t believe in ideas: they believe in people who believe in ideas.”

All of this is prompted by grappling with the career of François Mitterrand, courtesy of Mitterrand: a Study in Ambiguity (Bodley Head, £30), an excellent new book by the former BBC Paris correspondent Philip Short. His previous subjects as a biographer were Pol Pot and Mao Zedong. An odd trio but, as with the other two, Short brings to the former French president great insight without undue sympathy, qualities admired by Mitterrand, who said the most essential attribute in politics is “indifference”.

The reason for grappling with Mitterrand is simple enough: he is the most successful left-wing leader of any of the three leading western European countries (France, Britain and Germany), measured by longevity in power and arguably also by electoral dominance. A front-rank politician by the age of 30 in 1946 and a senior minister in successive governments of the Fourth Republic while in his thirties, he went on to lead today’s Socialist Party in 1971, then to win two presidential elections (in 1981 and 1988) and two parliamentary elections. Having condemned Charles de Gaulle’s strong Fifth Republic presidency as “a permanent coup d’état” when the general assumed power in the late 1950s, he occupied the post in full plenitude for 14 years (1981-95), ruling for longer than de Gaulle – longer indeed than any leader of France since Napoleon III – in a political career spanning half a century.

However, the explanation for Mitterrand’s success is anything but simple; also complex are the lessons for today’s left as it struggles to win and hold power across Europe, not least in France, where François Hollande evinces little of the mastery of Tonton (“Uncle”).

Short’s biography is subtitled A Study in Ambiguity but it could equally be described as “a study in deception”, because there was nothing ambiguous about the massive falsehoods and carefully constructed but entirely bogus images that litter every part of Mitterrand’s career. Short begins the biography with an electric account of the “observatory affair” of 1959, when Mitterrand faked an assassination attempt on himself as a ploy to regain the political initiative the year after de Gaulle buried the Fourth Republic and most of its political inmates. The fake was exposed and it is extraordinary that he ever recovered.

Yet the greatest deceptions were still to come. Throughout his presidency, he lied (and ordered his doctors to lie) about his health. Diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer within months of taking power in 1981 and expected to live for only three more years, he told his urologist: “It’s a state secret; you are bound by this secret.” When the cancer went into remission, he not only stood for re-election while maintaining the secret but struggled on for the full seven years although the cancer returned and, by the end, became undeniable.

His personal life was similarly full of falsehood. While his wife, Danielle, and their two sons were his public family, they coexisted with a secret second family of his mistress (who was 27 years younger than him) and their daughter, with Mitterrand shuttling between the two in Paris and the country, again unknown to the public until the end of his presidency. His daughter, Mazarine, was named after Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s wily and secretive first minister, whose precepts for the politician were taken deeply to heart by her father: “Be sparing with your gestures, walk with measured steps . . . Simulate, dissimulate, trust nobody.”

It is no surprise that it is hard to pin down what Mitterrand believed. Partly this is because his ideas changed so much and so often. Starting out as an official of the Vichy regime and an admirer of Philippe Pétain, he was elected in the Fourth Republic for a shifting array of parties of the centre right. As a minister in the mid-1950s, he was a voice not only of conservatism but of outright reaction and repression in respect of Algeria and the French colonies.

Throughout the 1960s, his big idea was anti-Gaullism. He championed liberalism in the face of overweening personal and presidential power. Socialism entered his vocabulary only as he sought a viable anti- and post- Gaullist political grouping, which, as a result of his artful machinations, came together in the Socialist Party in 1971.

Mitterrand then rose to power on the back of an alliance with the still-strong Communists. He fashioned this as the tribune of a leftism that included wholesale nationalisation, a war on the rich and a huge expansion of welfare spending without any regard for conventional economics, which he professed to despise.

This led to the “common programme”, which was put into action in 1981. Elected on the rhetoric of a “complete rupture” with capitalism and the slogan “Change life”, Mitterrand appointed Communist ministers to a pan-left coalition that embarked on the most radical and frenetic programme of nationalisation, state spending and cultural reform attempted by any western European government since the early postwar years.

Barely a year later, Mitterrand put most of this into rapid reverse. With the franc collapsing and the financial markets in revolt, economic orthodoxy returned, state spending was slashed and the Communists were ejected. Nationalisation was rolled back after the right won the parliamentary elections of 1986. Scotching the notion that he should resign in the face of this debacle, Mitterrand instead fashioned a new concept of “cohabitation” between a president of the left and a government of the right. He proceeded to outwit the then prime minister, Jacques Chirac, fighting him on the slogan of “Opening to the centre” in the 1988 presidential and parliamentary elections, while Chirac scrapped with Le Pen and the National Front – whose potency was largely a creation of Mitterrand’s manoeuvre to change the electoral system to proportional representation before the 1986 elections, specifically to strengthen the far right in relation to the centre right.

Re-elected as a centrist, Mitterrand appointed a government under the centrist social democrat Michel Rocard, including a large number of non-aligned ministers and even a handful of centre-right former ministers, before succumbing to another “cohabitation”, this time under Edouard Balladur (who had been the finance minister in the first “cohabitation”), which saw out his final two years of office.

“It was not in my interests to oppose the trend of public opinion,” said Mitterrand, abdicating any role in leading opinion as he drifted, with increasing physical and political infirmity and growing controversy – not least about his Vichy past, coming fully into the open for the first time – to the end of his second term.

Shortly before his replacement as prime minister in 1991, Rocard described his rival and nemesis as “cynicism in its purest sense”. During his 14 years in the Élysée, Mitterrand got through seven prime ministers, each the product of labyrinthine political calculations, the subtlety of which was often lost on the participants.

In all these manoeuvres, over five decades, ideology and political language were as often as not the servants of short-term political advantage. Simulate, dissimulate. Once he became a “socialist” after 1970, for instance, varieties of leftism were deployed to outwit party rivals on all sides and to make possible (and later to destroy) the alliance with the Communists.

The ceaseless shifting of Mitterrand’s ideas is a dominant theme of Short’s biography. Having sought out the essence of Mitterrand’s credo as a lesson for left-wing rejuvenation, I am instead bewildered by the endlessly turning kaleidoscope. I cannot think of a modern democratic leader who has made so successful a career trading rival ideas and policies to suit immediate political convenience. In the British context, over the course of his career, he was Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Enoch Powell, all rolled into one.

All of this ideological somersaulting was donewith immense intellectual engagement and fine calibration. In Mitterrand, the academic scribbler was more the servant of the practical politician than vice versa. A big part of “brand Mitterrand” was an ostentatious intellectualism giving apparent depth and sincerity to whichever creed he was peddling at any given time, however great the difference with the last one.

Mitterrand said he needed to read for two hours or more a day “to oxygenate the brain”. Many of his major shifts in ideas were accompanied by a book or pamphlet by the maestro – including his remarkable 47-page “Letter to all the French”, written as a manifesto for his “opening to the centre” for his 1988 re-election, advertised with little modesty as covering “all the big subjects which are worth discussing and mulling over between French men and women”. (“The night before it was to be published [he] stayed up till 3am at the printing press correcting the proofs, like a neophyte brooding over a first novel” – a brilliant detail, as are Short’s revelations that during tedious cabinet presentations, Mitterrand annotated antiquarian book catalogues and on presidential flights would sometimes ask the pilot to circle before landing so he could finish a chapter.)

Is Mitterrand’s legacy an object lesson in intellectual manoeuvring, with no inner core, as the method of a politician supreme? It is more than that in four respects. First, however labyrinthine his methods, there is a substantial progressive legacy from which the French left takes inspiration, including the abolition of the death penalty, significantly raising the minimum wage, equal rights for women and minorities, decentralisation and numerous beneficial grands projets.

Second, the 1982-83 reversal had the effect of demonstrating to the European left that “socialism in one country” didn’t work; pragmatic social democracy is the successful face of “Mitterrandism”.

There wasn’t the clear break with the doctrinaire past of the German SPD in the late 1950s and the British Labour Party in the mid-1990s, which is part of François Hollande’s problem as he tries to play the centre and an unreconstructed left together. Yet the post-Mitterrand French Socialist Party is as broad a church as its British and German counterparts and knows how to govern from the centre.

Third, there was a Mitterrand core: peace with Germany and projects to entrench European peace and security, from the European Communities in the 1950s to the single currency in the 1990s. A survivor of European war and its horrors – including time as a prisoner of war – Mitterrand never allowed the central pillars of a pro-German and pro-US foreign policy to become part of the game of “simulate, dissimulate”. Ironically, it was de Gaulle who played dangerously in this arena.

With Communists in his government and the left triumphant, Mitterrand’s first move in 1981 was to assure Ronald Reagan in unequivocal words and actions that France was a reliable ally. He did the same with Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands war a year later and also with Helmut Kohl, after an initial wobble, on German reunification. It was ambiguity at home but clarity abroad – and clarity in the cause of European peace and stability. Hence the most enduring image of Mitterrand: hand in hand with Helmut Kohl before two huge wreaths at Verdun in 1984 at a ceremony to seal Franco-German reconciliation.

Fourth, throughout his life and career, Mitterrand had a patrician sympathy with the underdog. Although he was the son of a stationmaster who inherited a family vinegar business, he served in the ranks in the war, having failed the competition for a commission, and developed a contempt for hierarchy and authority (besides his own) and a social sympathy for the less fortunate that was genuine and lasting. His political initiation – and his early political power base – was in organisations for returning prisoners of war. This need not have led him to the socialist left but it helped him accomplish the transition with an authenticity born to some degree from experience.

No feats of intellectual and political gymnastics can substitute or detract from personal experience. In Mitterrand’s case, it was his intimate experience of a France prostrate, impoverished and divided, that dominated his twenties and shaped him fundamentally.

Philip Short suggests another attribute of Mitterrand the leader: natural authority rooted in an “inner solitude” – “a part of [his] being that was locked, inaccessible to others, which is one of the characteristics of uncommon leaders everywhere” – and which came in part from a long period in the political wilderness (the 23 years from 1958 to 1981). He draws the parallel with de Gaulle in the wilderness in the 1950s; Churchill in the 1930s also comes to mind.

Perhaps. Yet François Mitterrand showed himself to be a notable leader as a prisoner of war and an organiser of fellow returnees long before his wilderness years. Maybe it owed more to Cardinal Mazarin, whose further advice for politicians was to “maintain a posture at all times which is full of dignity . . . Each day spend a moment studying how you should respond to the events which might befall you.”

In the last months of his life, his doctor told him he was a mixture of Machiavelli, Don Corleone, Casanova and the Little Prince. When Mitterrand enquired, “In what proportions?” the physician replied, “That depends on which day.”

François Mitterand, then president of France, sits for a sculptor in the banquet hall of the Palais de l'Élysée in October 1983. Photo: ©Guy le Querrec/Magnum Photos
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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