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Spiritual awakening

Globalisation has been good for gods in the Indian subcontinent. As the region has remade itself, it

On a foggy winter's night in November 1998, Om Singh, a young landowner from Rajasthan, was riding his Enfield Bullet back home after winning a local election near Jodhpur, when he misjudged a turning and hit a tree. He was killed instantly. As a memorial, his father fixed the motorbike to a stand, raised on a concrete plinth under the shelter of a small canopy, near the site of the crash.

“We were a little surprised when people started reporting miracles near the bike," Om's uncle Shaitan Singh told me on my last visit. "Om was no saint, and people say he had had a drink or two before his crash. In fact, there was no indication whatsoever during his life that he was a deity. He just loved his horses and his motorbike. But since his death a lot of people have had their wishes fulfilled here - particularly women who want children. For them, he has become very powerful. They sit on the bike, make offerings to Om Singh-ji, and it is said that flowers drop into their laps. Nine months later they have sons. Every day people see him. He comes to many people in their dreams."

“How did it all begin?" I asked. We were in the middle of a surging throng: crowds of red-turbaned and brightly sari-ed villagers gathered around the bike, the women queuing patiently to straddle its seat and ring the bell on the canopy. Nearby, two drummers were loudly banging dholaks, while chai-shop owners made tea and paan for the pilgrims. Other stalls sold plaques, postcards and statues of Om Singh and his motorbike. Pieces of cloth were tied to branches all over the tree and gold flags flapped in the desert wind. Everywhere buses and trucks were disgorging pilgrims coming to visit Rajasthan's newest shrine.

“First it was just family and friends who came," Shaitan Singh replied. "Then people realised there was a certain power here. It wasn't just the Hindus: Muslims came, too. Now the truck drivers will never pass this spot without stopping and making an offering. Every year the crowd grows."

“Do you believe in Om's power?" I asked.

“The more faith grows," he answered enigmatically, "the stronger it becomes."

Across the subcontinent, faith has been growing and religion becoming stronger as the region develops and reinvents itself. In 19th-century Europe, industrialisation and the mass migrations from farms and villages to the towns and cities went hand in hand with the Death of God: organised religion began to decline, and the church and state moved further and further apart. The experience of south Asia has been more or less the reverse of this.

During the early 20th century, educated, urban Hindu reformers moved away from ritualised expressions of faith, and early leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and B R Ambedkar constitutionally formed India as a model secular state with no official faith: this was to be a nation where, in the words of Nehru, dams would be the new temples. But over the past 20 years, just as India has freed itself from the shackles of Nehruvian socialism, so India has also gone a long way to try to shake off Nehruvian secularism, too. The revival of religiosity and religious extremism in Pakistan may be more the focus of the international media, especially as Barack Obama grapples in vain with the troubled region now hyphenated as Af-Pak, but what is happening in India is equally remarkable and in many ways surprisingly similar.

The dramatic revival of piety and religion in India has recently been the subject of a remarkable study by Meera Nanda, a Delhi-based academic who has shown how globalisation may be making India richer, and arguably more materialistic, but it is also making Indians more religious, and at the same time making religion more political. "Globalisation has been good for the gods," she writes in The God Market.

As India is liberalising and globalising its economy, the country is experiencing a rising tide of popular Hinduism which is leaving no social segment and no public institution untouched. There is a surge in popular religiosity among the burgeoning and largely Hindu middle classes, as is
evident from a boom in pilgrimage and the invention of new, more ostentatious rituals. This religiosity is being cultivated by the emerging state-temple-corporate complex that is replacing the more secular public institutions of the Nehruvian era . . . a new Hindu religiosity is getting more deeply embedded in everyday life, in both the private and public spheres.

India now has 2.5 million places of worship, but only 1.5 million schools and barely 75,000 hospitals. Pilgrimages account for more than 50 per cent of all package tours, the bigger pilgrimage sites now vying with the Taj Mahal for the most visited sites in the country: the Balaji Temple in Tirupati had 23 million visitors in 2008, while over 17 million trekked to the mountain shrine of Vaishno Devi.

In a 2007 survey jointly conducted by the Hindustan Times and the CNN-IBN news channel, 30 per cent of Indians said they had become more religious in the past five years. Such is the appetite for rituals in this newly religious middle class that there has recently been a severe shortfall of English- and Sanskrit-speaking priests with the qualifications to perform Vedic and Agamic rites. When it comes to rituals in the new India, demand has completely outstripped supply.

In her book, Nanda writes engagingly about what she calls "karma capitalism" and the Indian equivalent of American televangelists, the TV God Men, some of whom have huge followings: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who is in many ways India's Pat Robertson, has built a global spirituality empire called the Art of Living, which claims 20 million members, and much of whose land has been donated by Indian state governments.

Meanwhile, religion and politics are becoming ever more entangled. Nanda presents interesting evidence about the dramatic increase in state funding for yagnas (fire sacrifices), yoga camps and temple tourism, as well as the sharp increase in state donation of land for temples, ashrams and training schools for temple priests. In Rajasthan, the government annually spends 260 million rupees on temple renovations and training for Hindu priests. Mass pujas (prayers) and public yagnas have become an important part of political campaigning for all parties, not just the overtly Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Perhaps surprisingly, India's growing band of techies and software professionals seems particularly open both to religiosity in general and to hard right-wing Hindu nationalism in particular, so much so that many have joined a special wing of the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the National Association of Volunteers), the organisation to which Mahatma Gandhi's assassin belonged. The RSS now organises regular social meetings called IT-milans, where right-wing techies can "meet like-minded people and get a sense of participating in something bigger than just punching keyboards all day".

The modernisation of the RSS is certainly one of the more worrying trends in Indian religiosity, as is the organisation's increasing respectability in the eyes of the urban Indian middle class. For, like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still makes much of daily parading in khaki drill and the giving of militaristic salutes (the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest). The idea is to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will bring about a revival of what the RSS sees as the lost Hindu golden age of national strength and purity.

The BJP, which governed India from 1999 until 2004, and is now the principal opposition party, was founded as the political wing of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both organisations. Though the BJP is certainly much more moderate and pragmatic than the RSS - like Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party that embraces a wide spectrum of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers to raving ultra-nationalists - both organisations believe, as the centrepiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.

The most notable political manifestation of the increasing presence of religion in Indian life took place in the early 1990s as the Hindu right rose slowly to power, partly as a result of taking advantage of a long-running dispute over a small mosque in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya. The argument revolved around the question of whether Mir Baqi, a general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483-1530), had built the mosque over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god Lord Ram.

Although there was no evidence to confirm the existence of the temple or even to identify the modern town of Ayodhya with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organisations began holding rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple. Finally, at a rally in December 1992, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped into a frenzy by inflammatory BJP statements, stormed the barricades. Shouting "Death to the Muslims!" they attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, like symbols of India's traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.

Over the next month, violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the street. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It was a measure of how polarised things had become in India that this violence played so well with the electorate. In 1991, the BJP had taken 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous ­election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, it was finally able to take the reins of power into its hands.

Since then, however, the BJP has lost two general elections, largely for economic reasons, and perhaps especially their neglect of India's farmers; the ability of the religious right to mobilise votes by exploiting communal religious grievances seems, thankfully, to have diminished. But as large-scale anti-Christian riots in Orissa last year showed, it doesn't take much to wake the sleeping dragon of communal conflict from its slumber, and Ayodhya remains an emotive and divisive issue. If religion is no longer a vote-winner for the BJP, it is largely because other parties have found more subtle ways to use its ever-growing power.

F or the growing politicisation of faith among the middle classes is only part of a much wider story. Behind the headlines, and beyond the political sphere, in the small towns and villages suspended between modernity and tradition, Indian religion is in a state of fascinating flux. Over the past couple of years, while researching Nine Lives, my book on local and folk beliefs in contemporary India, I have been very struck by how fast forms of traditional Indian devotion have been changing, even in the villages and backwaters, as India transforms itself at breakneck speed.

As is now well known, India is already on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third-largest economy in the world; the Indian economy is expected to overtake that of the United States by roughly 2050. Much has now been written about the way that India is moving forward to return the subcontinent to its historical place at the heart of global trade, but so far little has been said about the way these huge earthquakes have affected the diverse religious traditions of south Asia, and particularly the archaic and deeply embedded syncretic, pluralist folk traditions that continue to defy the artificial boundaries of modern political identities.

Though the west often likes to imagine the religions of the east as deep wells of ancient and unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing rapidly as Indian society transforms itself beyond recognition.

Certainly on my travels around India for Nine Lives, I found many worlds strangely colliding as the velocity of this process increases. In Jaipur, I spent time with Mohan Bhopa, an illiterate goatherd from Rajasthan who keeps alive a 4,000-line sacred epic that he, now virtually alone, still knows by heart. Living as a wandering bard and storyteller, he remembers the slokas of one of the great oral epics of Rajasthan praising the hero-god Papuji. Mohan told me, however, that his ancient recitative art is threatened by the lure of Bollywood and the Hindu epics shown on Indian TV, and he has had to adapt the old bardic tradition in order to survive.

The epic that Mohan recites contains a regional variant on the "national" Ramayana myth. In the main Ramayana tradition, the hero Lord Ram goes to Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, who has been captured by the demon king Ravana. In the Rajasthani version of the myth, the hero is Papuji, and he goes to Lanka, not to rescue a kidnapped spouse, but to rustle Ravana's camels. It is exactly these sorts of regional variants, and self-contained local cults, which are being lost and menaced by what the eminent Indian historian Romila Thapar calls the new "syndicated Hinduism".

As Thapar explains in a celebrated essay on the subject, Hinduism is different from other major world religions in that it has no founder and no founding text. Indeed, the idea that Hinduism constitutes a single system is a very recent idea, dating from the arrival of the British in Bengal in the 18th century. Used to western systems of faith, early colonial scholars organised many of the disparate, overlapping multiplicity of non-Abrahamic religious practices, cults, myths, festivals and rival deities that they encountered across south Asia into a new world religion that they described as "Hinduism".

Since the mid-19th century, Hindu reformers such as Vivekananda have taken this pro­cess forward, so that Hinduism has slowly become systemised into a relatively centralised nationalist ideology which now increasingly resembles the very different structures of the Semitic belief systems that its more extreme adherents tend to abhor. "The model," writes Thapar, "is in fact that of Islam and Christianity . . . worship is increasingly congregational and the introduction of sermons on the definition of a good Hindu and Hindu belief and behaviour [is] becoming common, and register[s] a distinct change from earlier practice."

According to Thapar, the speed of this homogenising process is now rising. "The emergence of a powerful middle class", she believes, has created a desire for a "uniform, monolithic Hinduism, created to serve its new requirements". This Hinduism masquerades as the revival of something ancient and traditional, but it is really "a new creation, created to support the claims of [Hindu] majoritarianism".

All over India, villages were once believed to be host to a numberless pantheon of sprites and godlings, tree spirits and snake gods who were said to guard and regulate the ebb and flow of daily life. They were worshipped and propitiated, as they knew the till and soil of the local fields and the sweet water of the wells, even the needs and thirsts of the cattle and the goats in the village. But increasingly in urban India, these small gods and goddesses are falling away and out of favour as faith becomes more centralised, and as local gods and goddesses give way to the national, hyper-masculine hero deities, especially Lord Krishna and Lord Ram, a process that scholars call the "Rama-fication" of Hinduism. New deities are emerging, but carefully tailored for satisfying modern and middle-class needs, such as Santoshti Ma, who first reached national consciousness in the 1970s Bollywood film Jai Santoshti Ma. Also popular are other new deities such as Shani Maharaj, who neutralises the negative impact of the planet Saturn, and Aids Amma, who reputedly has the power to do away with HIV.

Ironically, there are strong parallels between the way this new Hinduism is standardising faith and what is happening in south Asian Islam - a religion Hindu nationalists routinely demonise. There, too, the local is tending to give way to the national as the cults of local Sufi saints - the warp and woof of popular Islam in India for centuries - lose ground to a more standardised, middle-class and textual form of Islam, imported from the Gulf and propagated by the Wahhabis, Deobandis and Tablighis in their madrasas. Today, the great Sufi shrines of the region find themselves in a position much like that of the great cathedrals and saints' tombs of northern Europe 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation. As in 16th-century Europe, the reformers and puritans are on the rise, distrustful of music, images, festivals and the devotional superstitions of saints' shrines. As in Europe, they look to the text alone for authority, and recruit the bulk of their supporters from the newly literate urban middle class, which looks down on what it sees as the corrupt superstitions of the illiterate peasantry.

Where this process differs from 16th-century Europe is in the important role played by colonialism. Religiously conservative Hindus and Muslims alike suffered the humiliation of colonial subjugation, and had to watch as their faith was branded degraded and superstitious by the victorious colonisers and their missionaries. In both faiths, reform movements re-examined and reinvented their religions in reaction to the experience of failure and conquest; but while Hindu reformers tried to modernise their diverse spectrum of theologies and cults to become more like western Christianity, Muslim radicals opted instead to turn their backs on the west, and return to what they saw as the pure Islamic roots of their faith.

In the aftermath of the brutal massacres by the British following the Great Uprising of 1857, Muslim radicals left the ruins of Delhi and the demolished Mughal court, rejecting both the gentle Sufi traditions of the late Mughal emperors and the ways of the west. Instead, disillusioned refugees from Delhi founded a Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband that went back to Quranic basics and stripped out anything syncretic, Hindu or European from the curriculum. A hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern west has yet had to face. In the al-Qaeda training camps of Kandahar, Deobandi currents of thought received a noxious cross-fertilisation with ideas that emerged from two other intellectuals forced to rethink their faith in reaction to domination by the west: the fathers of the intellectual Egyptian jihad, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.

Understandably, while it is the Islamists' assaults on India and the west that have absorbed our press of late, it is sometimes forgotten that the Taliban are also at war with rival comprehensions of Islam. Last year, in a new front on this war, they dynamited the shrine of the 17th-century Pashtun poet-saint Rahman Baba at the foot of the Khyber Pass in the North-West Frontier. For centuries, his shrine was a place where musicians and poets had gathered; Rahman Baba's Sufi verses in Pashto had long made him the national poet of the Pathans. Some of the most magical evenings I have ever had in south Asia were spent in the garden of this shrine, under the palm trees, listening to the sublime singing of the Afghan Sufis.

Then, about ten years ago, a Saudi-funded Wahhabi madrasa was built at the end of the track leading to the dargah (Sufi shrine). Soon its students took it upon themselves to halt what they saw as the un-Islamic practices of the shrine. On my last visit there, in 2003, I talked about the situation with the keeper of the shrine, Tila Mohammed. He described how young Islamists regularly came and complained that his shrine was a centre of idolatry, immorality and superstition: "My family have been singing here for generations," he said. "But now these Arab madrasa students come here and create trouble."

“What sort of trouble?" I asked.

“They tell us that what we do is wrong. They tell women not to come at all, and to stay at home. They ask people who are singing to stop. Sometimes arguments break out - even fist fights. This used to be a place where people came to get peace of mind. Now when they come here they just encounter more problems, so gradually they have stopped coming."

“How long has this being going on?"

“Before the Afghan war there was nothing like this," he replied. "But then the Saudis came, with their propaganda to stop visiting the saints, and to stop us preaching ishq [love]. Now this trouble happens more and more frequently."

The end came on 4 March 2009. A group of Pakistani Taliban arrived at the shrine before dawn and placed dynamite around the squin­ches of the dome. The shrine chamber was completely destroyed. The Taliban issued a press release blaming the shrine for opening its doors to women and allowing them to pray and seek healing there. Since then several other shrines in areas under Taliban control have been blown up or shut down, and one - that of Haji Sahib Turangzai, in the Mohmand region of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas - has been turned into a Taliban headquarters.

If the North-West Frontier is now dominated by the Wahhabis and their mad­rasas, in Sindh the Sufis are putting up a strong resistance on behalf of their saints and the old, mixed culture that emerged in the course of a thousand years of cohabitation between Hinduism and Islam. Here, 60 years after Partition and the expulsion of most of the Hindus of Pakistan into India, one of the Sajjada Nasheens, or hereditary tomb guardians of the great shrine of Sehwan, is still a Hindu, and it is he who performs the opening ritual at the annual Urs (death ceremony). Hindu holy men, pilgrims and officials still tend the shrine, replenishing the lamps and offering water to visiting pilgrims.

Many scholars believe that the Sufi fakirs of Sehwan Sharif model their dreadlocks, red robes and ecstatic dancing on those of Shaivite sadhus. For Sehwan was once the cult centre of a Shaivite sect called the Pashupatas, who believed in emulating the dance of Shiva as part of their rituals, and using this shamanistic dancing as a way of reaching union with God.

As elsewhere in south Asia, these local, composite and pluralistic traditions are under threat; but, as in India, the Sufis of Sindh are not going down without a fight. As one female Sufi devotee put it: "I sometimes feel that it is my duty to protect the Sufi saints, just as they have protected me. Today in our Pakistan there are so many of these mullahs and Wahhabis and Tablighis who say that to pay respect to the saints in their shrines is shirk [heresy].

“Those hypocrites! They sit there reading their law books and arguing about how long their beards should be, and fail to listen to the true message of the Prophet. Mullahs and Aza­zeel [Satan] are the same thing."

As the great saint Shah Abdul Latif wrote:

Why call yourself a scholar, o mullah?
You are lost in words.
You keep on speaking nonsense,
Then you worship yourself.
Despite seeing God with your own eyes,
You dive into the dirt.
We Sufis have taken the flesh from
the Holy Quran,
While you dogs are fighting with each other.
Always tearing each other apart,
For the privilege of gnawing at the bones.

William Dalrymple is the New Statesman's south Asia correspondent. His most recent book is "Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India", published by Bloomsbury (£20)

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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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