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Dave Eggers: The long ride to Riyadh

A tense taxi journey across the Saudi desert makes the author consider the folly of nationality.

Espen Rasmussen/Panos

We are flying down an empty six-lane highway, on our way from Jeddah to Riyadh, a seven-hour drive, and I’m thinking of possible routes of escape. I’m in the passenger seat of a new Toyota sedan travelling at 140kph through the Saudi Arabian desert and I’m racing through the implications of opening my door and leaping free.

The driver is a stranger to me. He is young, no more than twenty-five, with a smooth face and a tentative moustache. His name is Shadad, but he is not a taxi driver, and this is not a taxi. This car and this driver were arranged hastily by my guide and friend, Majed, who helped me around Jeddah the previous week. Before this drive began, Majed and I considered it a decent, if necessary, idea to employ such a driver for this trip, but now I am pondering how I could leave this car. If I open the door and roll out, would I survive? And if I did survive, where would I go? There’s nothing but rocks and sand for miles in any direction.

But still. Vacating this car might be necessary, because though I want to trust this young driver, he is not really a professional driver, and he has no taxi licence, and most of all, moments ago, while he was talking to a friend on his cellphone, he looked over to me with a mischievous smile and said to his friend, “Yeah, American, boom boom.” Then he laughed. He did everything but point his finger at me and pull the trigger. I’m not sure how many ways there are to interpret this.

It did not have to be this way. I woke up this morning ready to spend the day in Jeddah, having lunch with new Saudi friends, dinner with new Saudi friends, and then fly out of Jeddah in the late evening, heading back to the US on a red-eye through London. But it was soon after waking up that I looked closely at my itinerary to find that the flight I am booked on is not leaving from Jeddah at 10pm tonight; it’s leaving from Riyadh at 8pm – five hundred and twenty-five miles away.

So I made a flurry of frantic calls back home, to airlines and travel agents, confirming that this was indeed the itinerary, and learning that there were no available flights that would get me from Jeddah to Riyadh in time. There are various reasons I need to get out of Saudi Arabia and back to the US this day, so I had no choice but to look into driving across the country, to Riyadh, to make the flight.

And I had to tell all this to Majed.

“How could this happen?” he asked. I told him I had no idea, that I was very sorry.

Majed couldn’t do the drive himself, so he and I searched around Jeddah, looking for someone who could. We made our way to the outskirts of the city and through a brief labyrinth of small alleys. Finally we reached a dead-end, where about a half-dozen men sat outside on folding chairs. It was not a taxi stand or anything like it.

“This place?” I asked. “Who are these guys?”

“Our only option,” Majed said, and got out.

I sat in Majed’s car, thinking about what had transpired the previous day. Majed and I, who had enjoyed a fluid and friendly rapport for a week, had a strange exchange, which put in question if or why he should trust me. I made a joke about American-Saudi relations, and our military, their oil, various complicities and maybe even the CIA, and from then on, things went cold. It was as if he suddenly realised I was an American, and presumably participating in my country’s various crimes, real or imagined. Since then, he had been visibly anxious to be done with me; we barely spoke, and he seemed to be counting the hours till he could be rid of me.

So I was in Majed’s car, in this alley, watching him negotiate with the group, wondering if this could possibly be a good idea, getting into a car, for a six-hour drive across the Saudi desert, with a man we meet in an alley.

Majed soon returned to tell me the price they’d arrived at. Because I trusted Majed’s judgement, and because the price was far less than what one would pay for a six-hour drive in the United States, I agreed. He and the men and Shadad chose the car we would take, among a few of them parked outside, and I took my suitcase from Majed’s trunk and put it in the trunk of this new car.
Majed and I said our goodbyes – which were far more perfunctory than I’d expected earlier in the week, when we were close – and Shadad and I took off.

And because I always trust people until I’m given a reason not to trust them, I was content. It was noon, and we had enough time to make it to Riyadh. And because I was sure we would make it in time, I relaxed and planned to watch the passing scenery and possibly take a nap. But then, ten minutes into the drive, Shadad was on his phone, talking to his friend, and while on the phone he looked askance at me, a bloated grin fattening his cheeks, and delivered the “Yeah, American, boom boom” line into his silver cellphone.

Now I’m very much awake. And I’m contemplating my options. I want to roll out of the car, but the car is now doing 160kph. We pass a tanker truck as if it’s not moving. At this speed I have no options. I’m going wherever this man wants me to go.

I want to make clear that I’ve rarely if ever felt in actual danger while travelling anywhere in the world. This could be dumb luck. It could be a combination of dumb luck, common sense and the benefits of reciprocal trust: trust and you will be trusted. Give respect and you’ll get it.

In any case, it’s a result of a gradual evolution. When I first travelled, I was naive, sloppy, wide-eyed, and nothing happened to me. That’s probably where the dumb luck came in. Then I began to read the guidebooks, the State Department warnings, the endless elucidation of national norms, cultural cues and insults and regional dangers, and I became wary, careful, savvy. I kept my money taped inside my shoe, or strapped to my stomach. I took any kind of precaution, believing that the people of this area did this, and the people of that province did that. But then, finally, I realised no one of any region did anything I have ever expected them to do, much less anything the guidebooks said they would. Instead, they behaved as everyone behaves, which is to say they behave as individuals of damnably infinite possibility. Anyone could do anything, in theory, but most of the time everyone everywhere acts with plain bedrock decency, helping where help is needed, guiding where guidance is necessary. It’s almost weird.

But every so often I have the feeling that a certain guide or driver or boat captain or acquaintance has a powerful kind of leverage, and could kill me if they wished, and no one would know, no one could trace where or at whose hands I disappeared. This is one of those situations. Only Majed knows or cares that I’m in this man’s Toyota sedan, and I am therefore at this man’s mercy. But again, I was absolutely content with and trusting of this man before he made the Boom Boom comment. And normally I would have shaken it off, giving him the benefit of the doubt. I would normally think, He’s a young man, and he made a joke to another young man on the phone, and it has nothing to do with me.

But lately things have changed. There is new information. There are the State Department warnings in 2010, which say that Saudi Arabia is not so safe for Americans, and there are the many warnings made by hotel personnel not to get into random cars or taxis. And worst of all there is the fact that I have a friend who shared, I assume, my presumption of the goodwill of all those one might meet, and this acquaintance is currently in an Iranian prison. His name is Shane Bauer.

I’ve known him professionally for about three years, primarily as a translator. Back in 2008, I had just gotten back from what is now South Sudan and had done interviews with women who had been enslaved during the civil war, and I needed help transcribing my interviews and other interviews, many of which were in Arabic. So I was connected to Shane, a young man living in Oakland who spoke Arabic. He translated many of the tapes from South Sudan, and I later helped facilitate a trip he took to Darfur to make a documentary about the rebel movement there. Then, six months later, I learned that he had been imprisoned in an Iranian prison on dubious charges of espionage. And while I’m riding in this Toyota sedan, Shane is still in the Iranian prison, fate unknown.

This is all to say that something I would have previously deemed beyond the realm of possibility – that I would personally know someone being held captive in Iran as part of an internationally denounced power play on the part of the semi-sane government of Iran – has made more realistic the possibility that this young Saudi driver might try to do something nefarious with me today. And then there is Majed, who was my friend, but who now might think I’m some kind of enemy. My mind, alone in this featureless desert highway, creates grotesque possibilities. Could Majed have set me up? Because he came to believe I was some intelligence agent, could he have handed me to someone who would profit from my kidnapping? These thoughts are shameful, embarrassing. But if Shane Bauer can be jailed for hiking near the Iranian border, is it so improbable that I could be disposed of in some way here in the Saudi desert?

I look at the car’s gas gauge. I have the thought that if the driver is running low, and needs to refill, I’ll be able to escape. I assume there’s no way he could stop me. I have half a foot of height and thirty pounds on him. Then again, there could be a secret rendezvous point where he’ll fill up his tank and hand me to someone who will pay some bounty . . .

The gas tank is full. At the very least, it will be a while before we stop for that particular reason. Looking around the dashboard, I notice that the car’s interior is still covered in plastic. This is a different way of going about things, and I’ve seen it before in other parts of the world – the reluctance to take the plastic off new cars, new furniture and bicycles. I notice that though the car seems new, there is a cassette player, and that the driver has many cassettes; I haven’t seen this many cassettes in one place in a decade or two. On the mirror itself is a simple sticker that says SAUDI ARABIA, lest he or any other driver of this car forget where they are. I notice, most of all, a blue sign hanging from the rear-view mirror that says “HELP”. Below it is an arrow pointing to an ISBN code, as if that help might come via checkout scanner.

We continue to pass other cars and trucks so fast that they seem stationary. Could he be in a hurry to bring me to his receivers, those he’s sold me to? Now he’s smoking. I try to roll down my window but it’s locked. The driver sees me trying and unlocks it. I lower the window an inch. He looks at the window disapprovingly, and I realise the effect is the opposite as desired: the smoke is crossing the car to exit above my ear. I close the window. He opens his and looks to me.

“Smoke no good?” he asks.

“Smoke no good,” I say.

“Smoke good!” he says, and smiles. He’s making a joke. This is promising, I think.

Sensing the beginnings of a human connection, I open my backpack. He seems unconcerned that I might be taking out something dangerous – another good sign. I take out a folder, where I have my itinerary and tickets and other documents, including a photo of my wife and two kids, which I had printed on an ink-jet printer before I left. In what now seems like prescience, I figured I might need such a photo, to show to a man like this, if such a man had ill-intentions toward me and might be dissuaded by seeing me as a human, as a father; who might even find my children cute and want these children to grow up with two parents and not one.

So I take the photo out and lay it face-down on my lap. And then I ask him if he has kids. He doesn’t understand, so I mime the cradling of a baby, then point to him.

He scoffs and says, “No. No baby. I am the baby!”

It’s a good joke, and we both laugh. This is good.

I turn the photo to face up, and point to it and to myself. He looks at my two children, both very young, two and five years old, and he looks at my wife, and then he sees me in the picture, and he puts it all together. He smiles, nods, and I feel like showing the photo has come off as natural, as a logical enough thing to do during a long drive. And maybe I’ve put a thought in his mind: that I am a father, that my children are young, that I seem like a regular person, probably not a spy or Halliburton contractor or collaborator with the network of government officials and oil and defence contractors who might be the target of his opprobrium.

I leave the photo on my lap for a few miles as we continue driving. He asks no questions about my family – not that he could, with the language barrier, but still, something, I hope, has changed between us. I very well could be imagining it all, but I  have no choice but to hope. He flips the cassette in the tape player and lights another cigarette.

Dave Eggers’s view from inside Shadad’s car


I made no decision to be an American, made no sacrifices to be called an American, did no work to be born into the place and time and conditions that the United States enjoyed in 1970 and my family enjoyed in 1970. It is chance, blind luck, random. And it’s random that this Saudi driver, now hitting 175kph, was born into a Saudi vessel – both countries are so new that identifying too strongly with their names and flags is a psychic stretch – and it would be absurd if this man, this soul-in-a-Saudi-vessel, were to harbour any antipathy toward me, a soul-in-an-American-vessel. So it makes it difficult to take a situation like this, the possibility of danger in this car hurtling through the Saudi desert, too seriously for too long.

I have the frequent thought that if the worst came to the worst, a man like this and I could together recognise the absurdity of our nationalities. You are not a Saudi, I would say, referring to a country that has only existed since 1932. I am not an American, I would say, referring to a country that has existed for 240 years. You are not a driver. I am not your passenger. We believe so little of what we would be expected to believe – we believe nothing of the foundational evil of our nations assumed by many – but we do believe that it feels good to be trusted; we believe in the constant movement of souls, the restless nature of the spirit, the profound game of make-believe necessary for either one of us to assume a set of values or motives of the other based on our passports; we believe that we are tired, so tired, of being asked to distrust or hate the people of this country or that culture, the people wearing this uniform or that one, the people who worship this prophet or that god; that we can do better than our fathers and grandfathers and forgo the pretence of rivalries and suspicions; that what we really want are not inherited antagonisms but only some measure of human and material comfort; some frequent stimulation and delight of the mind; some sense of progress for the rights of people; some possibilities and choices for our progeny and the progeny of our neighbours; the ability to love who we want to love; the ability to move freely around the planet as time and means allow.

And right now, driving with this man, what I want is to make this interaction work. I want him to feel good about having met me, and I want to feel good about having met him. One thing you learn after twenty-odd years of random travel is that the people you see along the way – the cabbies, the vendors, the hoteliers, the fellow bus passengers, the man who rents you the kayak on the Isle of Skye – you’re unlikely to see again. So you want to get it right. To get it right you have to make it right.

But I didn’t make it right with Majed. I run the incident through my mind a dozen times during this drive, watching the desert go by. What did I say that was so wrong? Some joke about the American military. Some joke about unnecessary wars. It was not so wrong. He shouldn’t have been offended. Not just offended – he changed his mind about me completely. Had our friendship been on this razor’s edge from the start? One wrong phrase and I’d fallen into league with all US foreign policy wrongdoers – that couldn’t be fair. And then I was offended that he was offended. I was finished, too. I could spend hours trying to convince him I wasn’t some agent of imperialism, or I could wait out our last day or so, allow him to put me in some random car with some random man, and be done with it. Which is what I did.


Hours have passed since the “American, boom boom” comment. Shadad has made various other, uneventful, phone calls since then. I have felt comfortable enough to even take a few photos out the window, and even a few inside the car, including the one opposite. Shadad didn’t seem to mind.

And now we’re stopping for gas. The station looks like any gas station anywhere in the world. Shadad stops and unlocks the doors.

He gets out, stretches. I open my door and look around. I could run this way, I think. I could make a phone call at that shop over there. I could hide over behind that shed. I could appeal to that truck driver over there.

But instead I ask the driver if he wants a snack or drink. I mime drinking and eating. He shakes his head.

I walk over to the shop next door to the gas station. Inside, there is a solitary man, in his sixties, behind the counter. He nods to me and says, “Salaam.” I nod back, return his “Salaam”.

In the shop, I think again about escape. I could stay here. I could find a way to call Majed, and ask Majed for his guidance and his help, and maybe along the way apologise for my unfunny jokes about Saudi-American relations. I would miss my flight. I would have to stay overnight in Riyadh. Majed would have to drive out to get me here, four hours away from Jeddah and into the
desert, to get me to Riyadh, or back to Jeddah, or – ? But what’s the alternative? Should I really get back in the car with a man who seemed to have promised some terrible threat to my person?

Travel is about great and illogical leaps of trust, though, so I find myself buying a soda for myself and one for the driver, and a box of crackers big enough that we can share it. And then I’m walking back to the car. Shadad is already inside, a new cigarette filling the car with a toxic cloud. I offer the soda to the driver, but he smiles, confused – Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want a drink? – and puts the car in gear, and we’re off. He doesn’t touch the soda the rest of the drive.

Night comes on as we approach Riyadh. The city’s lights overtake the darkness. I look at the clock and see that because we’ve been travelling so fast we’re almost two hours early. I want to believe that Shadad was devoted to making sure I was on time for the flight, but it’s just as likely that he wanted to be finished with me, with this long silent drive, so he can get home.

I get out at my terminal, and he helps remove my bag from the trunk. “We made it in good time,” I say. I point to my wrist and give him a thumbs-up. He nods and almost smiles. We stand outside and again we stretch.

I take out an envelope of cash and try to give it to him.

Looking confused, he refuses.

“You friend?” he says. “He pay before we leave.”

I should have known. Majed, a young man of no great means, paid for the whole ride when he met Shadad in that Jeddah alley. I think of Majed now, and I want to embrace him, to tell him how sorry I am. But now I have only Shadad, so I shake his hand, my two hands around his one hand, and he adds his second hand to mine.

Dave Eggers’s latest novel, “The Circle”, is out now in paperback, published by Hamish Hamilton (£8.99). His collection of travel writing, Visitants, will be published in the autumn

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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