William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Bush vs Clinton 2: How two political dynasties captured the American people

Is America so shorn of fresh leadership and ideas that it is rerunning old elections?

It was the one question Jeb Bush knew was coming and would keep coming. Would he, like his brother, have invaded Iraq? Yet it took Jeb – the third Bush to make a run for the White House – five stabs over four days in May to come up with a coherent answer. He glided from telling Fox News that he’d have ordered US troops into Iraq even ­knowing what we know now, through ­claiming to have misunderstood the question, to admitting that “mistakes were made”.

Eventually, he settled on a final answer. “Knowing what we know now . . . I would not have engaged. I would not have gone into Iraq,” he said. This was not how it was supposed to be in the lead-up to the launch of Jeb’s campaign for the presidency on 15 June. He had expected to be cruising towards the Republican nomination and a showdown in November 2016 with Hillary Clinton. But a series of embarrassments, including the revelation that he once falsely claimed he was of Latino origin, and a headstart by Republican rivals, has left Jeb scrambling to reassert his claim to be the party’s inevitable candidate.

Hillary, too, has had to grapple with setbacks of her own making. But a Jeb-Hillary showdown for the White House next year is still the most likely outcome of the tortuous primary season. And it is a prospect that both excites and depresses Americans.

Some see it as evidence of the bankruptcy of US politics. Of a country so shorn of fresh leadership and ideas, and so disillusioned with the failure of the present resident of the White House to deliver on hope and change, that it is rerunning old elections. Political pundits groan that it will alienate young voters even further.

Then there’s the disturbing whiff of dynasty in a republic. If Hillary or Jeb is elected, there will have been a Clinton or Bush as the president or his deputy in every administration over the four decades to 2021 – with the exception of Barack Obama’s eight years. (And Hillary was still firmly on the scene then, coming close to securing the Democratic nomination in 2008 and serving in Obama’s cabinet.)

Even Barbara Bush, married to one ex-president and the mother of another, has spoken against a third member of her family taking a shot at the White House. “I think this is a . . . great country and if we can’t find more than two or three families to run for high office, that’s silly,” she told C-Span, the cable and satellite channel covering Congress, early last year. “I think that the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes – there are just more families than that.”

Adding to the hint of dark comedy is that the Bushes and Clintons have become so close – George W calls Bill his “brother from another mother”; Bill reportedly regards George H W Bush, president for a single term from 1989, as a father figure; and Jeb presented Hillary with a freedom medal last year – that the race smacks of an inter­familial spat.




Hillary, 67, has the significant advantage of a historic effort to become the US’s first female president. She is already a well-known public figure who has the advantage of a popular husband – Bill’s presidency is regarded favourably by two-thirds of Americans, particularly because it was a time of economic prosperity – and has established herself as a political force in her own right. The family name also carries with it remarkable fundraising capacities.

Many Democratic voters feel she has earned the right to be their party’s presidential candidate after losing out to Obama in 2008. The polls suggest that Hillary is in a stronger position to take the nomination than she was eight years ago. Although she was touted as the front-runner in 2008 until Obama crept up, polling shows her commanding much greater support among Democratic primary voters now. The socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, has launched a rival campaign which is already shifting the debate within the Democratic Party and dragging Hillary a little to the left. But she retains a commanding 45-point lead over him.

Like her or not, and Hillary elicits unusually high “very unfavourable” ratings, few question her intellect or political nous. But her sincerity is open to challenge after four decades in which she has repeatedly shifted position with the political winds. More than half of those questioned in a Quinnipiac poll on 17 June in Florida – a crucial state in the election – said they do not regard Hillary as “honest and trustworthy”, whereas the majority trust Jeb.

Hillary was in favour of the invasion of Iraq, against gay marriage and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, until she changed her mind on those and a slew of other issues. She angered progressives in the 1990s by supporting her husband’s cuts to welfare and was seen as far too close to Wall Street after she was elected a senator for New York in 2000.

The image of elitism has inconveniently persisted just as income inequality is becoming a political issue. Last year Hillary complained of being “dead broke” after she and Bill left the White House, even though they were soon pulling in millions of dollars. The couple, like the Blairs, have not shied away from the opportunity to rake in cash. Hillary has been forced to deny that the large sums of money the Clinton Foundation accepted from foreign governments, notably Saudi Arabia, had an influence on her decisions as US secretary of state. What should have been an asset – the foundation is involved in a range of causes, from combating Aids and promoting education for girls to economic empowerment – has become a political embarrassment.

The sense that Hillary is not trustworthy and has something to hide was compounded by the revelation in March that she set up her own server to store emails as US secretary of state. It also plays into the impression that she is an elitist who regards herself as being above the rules. Ultimately, Hillary comes across less as an inspiring leader than as a brand to be managed.




For Jeb, the path to power is trickier. The Bush dynasty attracts influential support, but the name is also a drag, associated not just with the Iraq debacle and economic turmoil but, for many Republicans, with the betrayal of conservative fiscal values.

Moreover, the Republican field is much wider than the one for the Democrats. Even before Jeb declared, ten other candidates had jumped into the race, including two repeat offenders, the Texas ex-governor Rick Perry and the former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Jeb is unlikely to lose much sleep over them, but he will worry about the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, and the Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American who can steal his thunder on his home turf.

With the Bush family political machine behind him, Jeb has a large campaign chest, said to be close to $100m, a crucial asset in a long contest. But he faces the prospect of a politically bloody showdown just to get the nomination. He got a taste of it at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February when he was booed by grass-roots activists who dismiss him as “too moderate”.

Republican candidates on the hard right, such as the junior Texas senator, Ted Cruz, also pose a threat because they are likely to shift the debate to issues, such as immigration and education, which turn many Republican voters off Jeb.

Yet far from shying away from the confrontation, Jeb, 62, appears to be setting the stage for a showdown that could make or break his presidential ambitions, and his party, in 2016. In December, he said that Republican candidates must be willing to “lose the primary to win the general” election – a forthright challenge to the conservatives and Tea Party voters who turn out in higher numbers in the primaries.

“It’s going to be a challenging primary but he’s going to run unafraid to lose,” says Jorge Arrizurieta, a close family friend in Miami who served in George W’s administration and shares office space with Jeb. “What he’s saying is we’re going to have to accept that there are positions and issues that we have historically embraced that are not going to make sense to continue to ­embrace. And we’re going to have to change the messaging and the tone if we’re going to win the next election.”

To the Republican establishment, Jeb – who is married to a Mexican, speaks impeccable Spanish and was governor of heavily Hispanic Florida for eight years – offers the enticing promise of dragging his party out of its cul-de-sac of ethnic politics to win enough of the rapidly growing but alienated Latino vote to decide the election.

His home state, the third most populous in the US and the most closely fought of the swing states, will loom large through the contest. Florida’s electoral college votes form 10 per cent of the total any candidate must secure to win the presidency. Victory in the state’s tainted ballot 15 years ago put George W in the White House. Obama took Florida in 2012 with a majority of less than 1 per cent of the vote in the state over Mitt Romney. The Republicans must reclaim Florida next year to win the presidency.

Jeb may be the Republicans’ best shot to do so. The Quinnipiac poll of crucial swing states gave Hillary a substantial lead over most potential Republican contenders in Florida, but showed a much tighter race against the native sons Jeb and Rubio.

Yet Jeb faces the formidable challenge of escaping his brother’s legacy. Running against a Clinton somewhat offsets the dynasty issue, but there will be no escaping the pressure to renounce an array of George W’s policies, from economics to Iraq.

“He has to show people why he isn’t just ‘the next Bush’. He’s going to have to prove he isn’t Dubbya,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Centre for Politics. “How exactly does Jeb Bush attack Hillary Clinton on economics when the obvious retort is ‘your brother left the country in the worst recession since the Great Depression’? It tends to discredit your economic ideas.”




Jeb has not helped his cause by appointing George W as a top foreign policy adviser and surrounding himself with many of his father’s and brother’s foreign policy and security aides, including Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon architect of the Iraq policy, two former homeland security chiefs and two former CIA directors.

As Jeb seeks to define himself less as the swaggering Texan cowboy than the culturally attuned idealist naturally at home in melting-pot Miami, his views and experience are already coming under scrutiny from the Hillary camp and Republican rivals. He left Houston because of the racism his wife, Columba, endured and found a home among the conservative, business-minded anti-Castro Cuban exiles who came to remake Miami’s culture and politics.

Florida is the one place where Jeb Bush is already unequivocally regarded as his own man. He remains one of the state’s most popular politicians after his eight years as governor, not least for his competence in confronting a series of hurricanes, in contrast to his brother’s bungling of Katrina’s 2005 assault on New Orleans.

“The country has low expectations [of Jeb],” says his family friend Jorge Arrizurieta. “A large number of Americans think they know him and they don’t. But that could be as much an opportunity as a challenge in this election. He ended leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings of any former governor in Florida.”

Arrizurieta, whose office wall is decorated with pictures of generations of Bushes as well as Ronald Reagan, treads delicately around the perception that Jeb is the brighter of the brothers.

“If I were to distinguish them, I’d say it’s the obsession on preparedness [sic] and the obsession on being knowledgeable. I’m not suggesting that President Bush [George W] is not interested in being knowledgeable or is not prepared but I don’t think that it’s to the level where Jeb’s at,” he said. “Jeb is as firm, as clear, as unequivocal as George W Bush might be accused of not being.”

Indeed, his opponents generally pay tribute to his intelligence and intricate grasp of policy issues. “Anybody who underestimates Jeb Bush does it at his own peril,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign in Florida. “He’s an exceptionally bright guy.

“He’s a policy wonk. He knows his stuff. If you talk to people that worked for him as governor, he had staff but he viewed himself in many ways as the smartest person in the room. He probably frequently was the smartest person in the room.”

But Florida also lays bare a depth to Jeb’s ideological conservatism to which most Americans are yet to be exposed, including, ironically, those on the right of the Republican Party who accuse him of being too moderate, or a Rino: a Republican In Name Only. Hillary’s backers are already starting to shine a light on parts of his record that suggest he is a more deeply ideological conservative than much of America realises.

In 1994 Jeb lost the race for Florida governor against the Democratic incumbent, Lawton Chiles, following a campaign in which he described himself as a “head-banging conservative” ready to “club this government into submission”.

“He ran that election not only as a head-banging conservative but almost an off-the-tracks conservative,” says Dan Gelber, who became a high-ranking Democrat in the Florida legislature during Bush’s tenure as governor. “One of his primary criticisms of the governor was he was not signing death warrants fast enough, that Lawton Chiles wasn’t executing people quickly enough for him. That’s a pretty right-wing view to use as a campaign position. He made ideological issues like abortion touchstone issues that are the right wing’s bread and butter.”

Jeb said that women receiving welfare assistance should “get their life together and find a husband” to support them. He ­objected to legal protections from discrimination for gay people, arguing that “we have enough special categories, enough victims”, and said the proposed legislation endorsed “sodomy”. He also had the catering staff at a fundraiser remove Aids ribbons because they were a “political statement”.

Perhaps the remark mostly likely to return to haunt him was his response to a question about what he would do for African Americans as Florida’s governor. “Probably nothing,” he replied. Not only did he lose, but he did so in a year when Republicans swept the board in other parts of the country and seized control of the US House of Representatives.




John “Mac” Stipanovich was Jeb’s campaign manager in 1994. Stipanovich drew national notoriety six years later for advising Florida’s then secretary of state, Katherine Harris, on the “hanging chad” vote recount that put George W into the White House instead of Al Gore.

“George W was running for governor in Texas at the same time, so to differentiate Jeb – in effect brand him – we were very specific about any number of issues that were important at the time, and Jeb was very conservative,” says Stipanovich, who also ran the Reagan-Bush presidential campaign in Florida in 1984. “By being so specific, what it also did was enable our opponents to lash out at him, chip away at what we were doing, and ultimately they were successful.”

The lesson that Jeb drew from the campaign was to shield his less palatable views from voters.

“I’m making the numbers up but back in ’94 Jeb believed ten things very firmly and all of them were very conservative,” Stipanovich says. “Let’s assume for a moment that the people of Florida only agreed with him by wide margins on four of those things. What he learned between ’94 and ’98 was, he didn’t change his position: he just didn’t talk much about the six. He talked about the four.” Still, the candidate showed the extent of his conservatism after he won election as governor in 1998, following a far less ideological campaign. “He was a hyper-partisan, hyper-ideological governor,” says Schale, the Democratic strategist. “The irony of this national brand of Jeb being this moderate, ‘get along, go along’ kind of guy is that’s not who he was as governor at all. He was very much a ‘my way or the highway’ politician. Very much ideological, almost libertarian. Democrats were weeded out of the state government, they were marginalised by the governor.” As governor, he scrapped affirmative-action programmes and oversaw the passing of the notorious “stand your ground” gun law, which two years ago got George Zimmerman off in Florida for shooting the teenager Trayvon Martin. He pushed religious initiatives, including a faith-based prison.

Jeb also played an instrumental role in winning the release from prison of Orlando Bosch, a right-wing Cuban exile to the US convicted of mounting a terrorist attack on a Polish ship and strongly implicated in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane which killed all 73 civilians on board.

Furthermore, the Hillary campaign is likely to make much of Jeb’s decision to wade into a years-long family legal battle over whether to turn off the life support for a woman in a persistent vegetative state in the early 2000s. Terri Schiavo’s husband wished to let her die; Jeb backed her parents’ effort to keep her alive.

When the courts ruled in 2003 that life support could be withdrawn, he encouraged the Florida legislature to take the extraordinary step of passing legislation permitting him to override the courts. He then had the state police remove Schiavo from a hospice and taken to a hospital to have a feeding tube reinserted. The move caused uproar and Florida’s supreme court ruled his actions unconstitutional.

Despite this track record, Jeb finds himself on the back foot with the right-wingers who turn out in large numbers in primary elections. They haven’t forgiven George W for betraying a promise to shrink the government and taxes, and they baulk at anyone backed by the party establishment, scorned for suggesting compromise in order to win elections.

Jeb has riled conservatives over another issue that infuriates the Republican base but that is largely based on a misunderstanding. As governor, he enthusiastically promoted Common Core, a set of national education standards cooked up by state governors. The conspiratorial end of the Republican right has latched on to the idea that it is a secret attempt by the federal government to take over education – a purview of individual states – and has taken to calling it ObamaCore, even though the White House played only a marginal role.

In the face of this, Jeb’s challenge is to persuade the Republican base ahead of the primaries that he is indeed an authentic and deep conservative without scaring swing voters in the general election. “The irony about this is his opponents appear to be trying to peg him as the moderate, which is almost laughable,” says Stipanovich. “I don’t think he’s changed his mind about much in 20 years but the Republican Party sometimes stampeded to the right of us.”




Jeb says he is up for the fight. Two years ago, he warned the Conservative Political Action Conference that Republicans are too often associated with being “anti”. “Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on. Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidates even though they share our core beliefs, because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party,” he said. The perception of the Republicans as anti-immigrant matters in a country where what to do about the 11 million-plus illegal migrants, predominantly from Mexico, is an open political sore and possibly a decisive issue in 2016.

It lies at the heart of a factor that appears to favour the Democrats – demographics. Younger people, white women and minorities all voted strongly in favour of Obama. But the Democrats in general, and Clinton in particular, struggle with one demographic: white men.

“One of the challenges the Democrats have is, even with a more diverse electorate, my party has to be concerned by the fact that we have to do better among whites than we’re doing, particularly white men,” says Schale. “You can run up the score among blacks and Hispanics but if you’re only getting 30 or 35 per cent of the white vote, the math gets really hard. If you’re getting 40 per cent it gets a lot easier.”

That is particularly true in Florida, where seven out of ten voters are white but the number of Latinos on the rolls is rising. They account for more than 10 per cent of the electorate and in parts of the country that play a critical role in the election result, including Florida, their votes are often up for grabs between the parties.

Jeb is popular with the Hispanic community. His party is not popular, however, in large part because of the debate over illegal migration. He has described the matter as “toxic” and said it cost the Republicans half of their support among Latinos at the last presidential election.

Hillary and the Democrats are pushing a “path to citizenship” for millions of illegal immigrants who have lived in the US long enough. The Republican right describes that as “rewarding lawbreakers” and regards any form of legalisation as “amnesty” and akin to treason.

Jeb bluntly laid out the problem in his 2013 book, Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution. He warned that Republicans “cannot win future national elections without increased Hispanic support” and that this is jeopardised by the poisoned debate over the matter. Mitt Romney’s attempts to formulate an immigration policy acceptable to the right wing of his party during the 2012 primaries descended into farce as he latched on to the widely ridiculed concept of “self-deportation” – the illusion that millions of illegal immigrants would go home of their own accord and wait years for a US visa to allow them to return.

Hispanic support for the Republicans plummeted from 44 per cent in 2008, when John McCain was the party’s presidential candidate, to just 27 per cent for Romney, and helped deliver Florida for Obama. Jeb said his party’s position on immigration “hung like an anvil around [Romney’s] candidacy”. “The toxic rhetoric of ‘self-deportation’ suggests that certain groups are not wanted,” he wrote in his book.

Immigration might be an issue for Hillary, too, given Obama’s track record. He has deported record numbers of illegal migrants and failed to follow through on promises of reform made in his first year in office, when the Democrats controlled Congress. But he has stolen back the initiative with executive orders providing de facto amnesty to several million immigrants smuggled in to the United States as children and to adults with children who are US citizens.

Hillary strongly backed the move and has positioned herself to reassure Latino families she will defend it as president.

The Republican response has been to seek to alienate Hispanic voters further by denouncing Obama’s moves as an abuse of power and trying to cut off funding for the scheme. Jeb demonstrated the bind he is in as he tries to woo primary voters and Latinos in the general election by joining in criticisms of the president’s actions, suggesting that Obama had “overstepped his executive authority”, yet saying he backs legislation that would have much the same result.

Arrizurieta says that Jeb’s greatest asset in overcoming the immigration question is simply to show who he is.

“For Jeb, it’s really not that hard. Married to a Mexican lady, his kids are about as American as anybody else but they kind of look Hispanic because they’ve got their mother’s genes,” he says.

“When you’ve created a family that is multicultural and you’ve experienced the culture by living in Miami for 30 years, the issue comes first hand. That’s a huge asset in a general election. It’s more of a challenge in the primary.”

Schale said Jeb probably poses the greatest threat to Hillary’s bid for the presidency because of it. “He does have, and Democrats shouldn’t underestimate this, a fairly significant well of support among Hispanics. He’s spent a lot of time building relationships and trying to be accessible.

“Florida’s a hyper-competitive state and Jeb gives the Republicans a lot more chance of winning it than, say, Rand Paul or Ted Cruz or Scott Walker, but I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion.”

Arrizurieta would agree with that. He acknowledges the pitfalls for Jeb but sits back and enjoys the idea of a man he regards as one of his own in the White House.

“They used to refer to [Bill] Clinton as the first black president. I can assure you, if we’re fortunate enough to get there, Jeb Bush will be the first Hispanic president,” he says.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

Show Hide image

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