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The chocolate king of São Tomé

Xan Rice visits a man who has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the wo

On a small Atlantic island on the equator, in a lemon-coloured bungalow with a clear view over a tinfoil bay, lives the Italian honorary consul. In his drive-way are two ancient Fiat Pandas. In his back garden is a chocolate factory. The consul’s name is Claudio Corallo. He is 57 and lean, with neat grey hair, a matching moustache and an inventor’s lively eyes. He speaks five languages fluently, and English sparingly and excitedly.

"Paradise!" and "Magic!" are a few of his stock English words, and could describe the allure of the rainforest, or the transformation of the humble cocoa bean into fine chocolate. "Shameless!" and "Shit!" are other favourites, and might refer to the marketing gimmicks of some of his competitors, or the state of western society.

For the past decade, Corallo has been on a quest to produce some of the finest dark chocolate in the world. His bars, which range in cocoa content from 60 per cent to 100 per cent, and may contain ginger, arabica coffee beans, orange rind or plump raisins soaked for months in his home-made cocoa-pulp alcohol, sell for between seveb and nine euros (£6.20 and £8) for 100g in Europe, the United States and Japan.

That puts Corallo in the same market as the world's leading gourmet chocolate-makers, such as Valrhona and Pralus in France and Italy's Amedei and Domori. Yet he has little in common with any of them.

For one, Corallo makes his chocolate at, or at least very near, source - on São Tomé, off the west coast of Africa, population 160,000 (including ten Italians), where the electricity is intermittent and flights to Europe depart once a week. Equally unusually, he controls the entire process, from the tree to the bar.

Most fine chocolate-makers buy their cocoa from farmers thousands of miles away. Corallo grows his own cocoa on a 120-hectare plantation on Príncipe, the twin island of São Tomé, 90 miles to the north-east, where he spends part of each month living in a tumbledown colonial-era house, with no power, no hot water and a system of air-conditioning that involves leaving all the windows open.

And then there is his attitude to life and to business. Corallo describes himself as "a free man, an anarchist" and counts among his closest friends a Basque man exiled to São Tomé two decades ago because of his alleged links to the terrorist organisation ETA. Though he wants people to eat his chocolate, Corallo abhors having to persuade customers to buy it. He lost a contract with Fortnum & Mason a few years ago principally because he refused to make fancy wrappers for his product.

"I hate compromise," he says. "And marketing is compromise."

Even today, the simple packaging on his bars contains only his name, and his chocolate's place of origin. There is little hint of his story.

As a boy growing up in Florence, Corallo dreamed of forests. He studied tropical agronomy after school. When he was 23, he gave up his job as a diver for a dredging company in Trieste to move to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). It was 1974. Muhammad Ali had just fought George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa. Mobutu Sese Seko's government, which had staged the fight, hired Corallo as an agricultural researcher. The job did not inspire him, but the jungle did.

Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing

Five years on, he bought a run-down, 1,250-hectare coffee farm in Lomela, right in the centre of the country. The safest way to get there from the capital was a thousand-mile boat trip up the Congo River, taking up to two weeks. His wife, Bettina, the daughter of the Portuguese ambassador to Congo, was the first white woman local people had ever seen arriving on a pirogue.

"It was a paradise. Shorts, shirt, no shoes, machete. All you needed to live," says Corallo.

He ignored the textbooks on coffee cultivation, relying instead on trial and error. His methods ranged from the strange - talking to his pack cows rather than using whips - to the improvisational - using lianas from the forest rather than nails to join fence poles. He sent his export-quality robusta beans to Kinshasa using a modified barge originally owned by Belgian missionaries.

By 1989, shortly before the world coffee price plunged by more than half in a few months, he was making good money and employed more than 1,000 workers. He had a daughter, Ricci arda, and Bettina was in Argentina, where her father was now the ambassador, about to give birth to a son.

Facing financial ruin, Corallo left the plantation and headed into the forest. He took a single book with him: Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. "I felt like Colonel Aureliano Buendía, with the world crashing around me," he says.

When he emerged six months later (he would not see his son and current right-hand man, Niccoló, until he was nearly a year old), he had an idea to boost sales by working with nearby coffee farmers. The plan worked and his farm was saved, but other dangers were looming.

Congo was growing unstable, with rebel forces becoming active in the area. By late 1996, when Laurent Kabila's militias began marching towards Kinshasa from the east, signalling the end of the Mobutu era, Corallo knew that his time in Congo was coming to an end. Returning to Europe was not an option. "If I had been forced to go, there were two possibilities: either I would have been put in prison within two months, or I would have been forced to take heroin - with an industrial pump."

He wanted to stay in central Africa. And he wanted to farm.

Cocoa is believed to have originated in the forests between the Amazon River in Brazil and the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It thrives in the tropics. Around 1822, sailors brought seedlings from Brazil to São Tomé and Príncipe, also a Portuguese colony.

The trees took quickly to the rich volcanic soil. By the turn of the 20th century, São Tomé was the biggest producer of cocoa in the world. Customers included the leading British chocolate manufacturers Cadbury and Fry, both Quaker-rooted companies that prided themselves on their principles.

There was, however, a terrible secret to their supply chain - slavery. In 1904, the American magazine Harper's sent the British war correspondent Henry W Nevinson to West Africa to investigate reports of forced labour along the coast. "The islands possess exactly the kind of climate that kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish," he wrote of São Tomé in his final despatch, titled The Islands of Doom. The 20,000-plus slaves on the plantations - more than half the country's population - were doing most of the dying. On Príncipe, the annual death rate was 21 per cent - giving a slave a life expectancy of under five years.

Shamed into action, the British companies soon shifted their supply source to the then Gold Coast (now Ghana), signalling the start of São Tomé's steady decline among the international cocoa producers. By the time Corallo arrived in São Tomé in 1997, many of the old plantations had long been abandoned. After much searching, he stumbled across the Terreiro Velho farm on Príncipe's humid coast, and purchased it from the state. The colonial house had gone to ruin; a resurgent jungle had hidden many of the 20,000 cocoa trees.

On the beach Corallo built a wooden bungalow for his young family, and they began to clear the plantation. He was confident that he could farm cocoa successfully. But could he also turn it into fine chocolate?

Although the plantation had old cocoa trees of a quality superior to that of the more recently introduced hybrids found on mainland Africa, they were still forasteros - the most common of the three varieties of cocoa, and the blandest in taste. Almost all fine dark chocolate is made from trinitario and, very rarely, criollo beans.

Corallo was undaunted. He believed he could make up for the beans' inherent limitations by applying the same commitment that winemakers and olive growers show their crops - the sort of attention rarely seen in the world of chocolate.

"Good chocolate is not necessarily a problem of variety," he says. "It is a problem of work."

One morning at 6am, Corallo picked me up at my guest house in São Tomé, the islands’ capital city. He wore his usual uniform: old polo shirt, a cheap Casio digital watch, well-worn moccasins and faded Bermuda shorts. Hanging from a green string on his belt was a tiny Swiss army knife.

He was driving his dark green Panda, which he bought for ?500 in Italy and shipped to São Tomé. Even on an island of constant surprises - the previous evening I had seen a man driving down the main seafront road with a monkey bouncing on his shoulder - the car marked Corallo as different. Most expatriates here drive expensive 4x4s.

"Even if I was offered a Mercedes I would keep the Panda," he says. "Big cars, mobile phones, watches, clothes. They are for people who want to fill their emptiness with nothing."

We headed away from the Atlantic Ocean, towards the smoky mountains that loom over the town. Banana plants and breadfruit trees formed part of a luxuriant green wall pushing against the narrow, twisting road. After half an hour we had travelled 11 miles and ascended nearly 1,000 metres to reach Corallo's Nova Moca farm on São Tomé, which doubles as a coffee plantation and an extension of his chocolate factory. On terraced fields either side of an old abandoned farmhouse grew seven different varieties of arabica, robusta and liberica coffee.

The trees give him a small yet high-quality crop - his yield is little more than one-hundredth of that on a commercial coffee farm - and it is sold only in Portugal. Cocoa is what makes the money.

On the plantation on neighbouring Príncipe, Corallo's workers cut the ripe, melon-shaped cocoa pods from the trees using machetes, and crack them open with sticks to extract the beans. Nearby small-scale farmers who share his farming philosophy harvest at similar times and sell him their cocoa, as he pays much more than brokers in São Tomé.

Convention suggests forastero beans should be fermented - a process that gives them their chocolate taste - for about six days. But Corallo insisted on doing his own experiments to find the optimum period.

"I always start from zero [scratch]. Even if people say I start one way, I start with zero."

His trials suggested six days was not enough; instead, he ferments his beans for well over two weeks on his own bespoke racks. (He asked me not to reveal the exact number of fermentation days. It's a trade secret.)

The traditional way to dry the beans after fermentation is to lay them in the sun. But Corallo has his own methods that he believes to be superior: either spreading the beans over a platform of heated clay tiles, or placing them in a huge aerated cylinder that a friend built for him in Italy.

Once dried, the beans are packed aboard an old fishing trawler for the six-hour journey to São Tomé. They are then transported to Nova Moca for careful cleaning and sorting, roasted in Corallo's factory at his beachfront house, and returned to the coffee plantation.

Under a covered platform, with the ocean shimmering in the distance, stood several long wooden tables. Thirty men and women, each wearing a white overcoat, a hairnet and a face mask, sat with a pile of cocoa beans in front of them.

Carefully they stripped each bean of its outer shell and discarded the tiny, acrid germ, leaving just the cocoa nibs. This process, winnowing, is usually done by machine, but Corallo believes that the quality of the chocolate suffers as a result. By doing things manually he is also creating employment; at peak times there are 60 people on shelling duty, each earning what is, by local standards, a decent wage.

From Nova Moca, the nibs are returned to Corallo's four-room factory in his backyard, which he built using two shipping containers as the skeleton, lined with African teak. In the narrow entranceway, workers use a system of fans to blow away any residual particles of dust clinging to the nibs. The nibs are then ground by machine into cocoa liquor. After a few other refinements - some secret - the cocoa is ready to be turned into chocolate.

Later the same day, I visited the factory, following the aroma of dark chocolate from the driveway. Workers were scurrying around with trays of chocolate ready for cutting and packaging. Corallo, meanwhile, was eating - and drinking - into his profits. He had already guzzled "about 30" samples of his newest creation: chocolate balls featuring a core of 2 grams of ginger inside a layer of 100 per cent cocoa.

He had also taken several sips of his prized alcohol, 74 per cent proof and chest-warming, with a rich, fruity aftertaste. It is made from the sticky white pulp that surrounds the cocoa beans inside the pod and which is discarded by most farmers.

As with his coffee, the yield is tiny - one litre for every tonne of beans - making commercial production impossible. Instead, he soaks raisins in the alcohol before hiding them inside fat, 50g chunks of dark chocolate. It is easily his bestselling product.

But the chocolate he puts in front of all visitors, many of whom arrive at his gate unannounced and are welcomed into the factory, is his 100 per cent pure cocoa bar. Sugar gives chocolate its sweetness - tasting a bar without any "is like examining the cocoa beans under the microscope", Corallo says.

He cut a small piece and laid it on a tray. Then he took out several bars made by his competitors and cut a morsel off each. Finally, he poured a glass of water.

A few of the samples were so bitter as to be inedible. Others, marginally less bitter, tasted fatty and clung to the palate. It was hardly a scientific test, but there was no doubt that Corallo's bar tasted sharper and was by far the least bitter.

"You see?" he said. "The type of bean does not matter. If it tastes good, it's good."

After a decade on the island, Corallo is well known, and respected. One afternoon I was interviewing Rafael Branco, a former foreign minister, when Corallo's name came up. "You see the car he drives, the simple way he lives, the things he does for this country? Don't give us aid - give us ten clones of Corallo," said Branco.

In the gourmet chocolate industry, however, Corallo remains the quirky outsider and has yet to gain the recognition he feels his chocolate merits. (He claims never to have tasted any bar that can match his own.)

Martin Christy, editor of, a UK-based website for chocolate aficionados, describes Corallo's bars as "earthy, rough and ready, and interesting to try". But he says they have yet to equal the best chocolate made with non-forastero cocoa from South America, south-east Asia or Madagascar.

"The problem is the beans' genetics. Even with the best processing you might get a very good, cheeky chocolate, but not a great one."

Even so, Corallo's sales are growing, and reached about ?360,000 last year despite minimal marketing. Although he is designing a new website, and attends the occasional trade fair - usually the prestigious Salon du Chocolat in Paris - it is always done grudgingly.

"The Salon is shit," he says. "But sometimes we have to make prostitutes out of ourselves."

Often, he is introduced to new markets through people approaching him after tasting his chocolate. He has recently opened up a market in Japan, after a woman from Tokyo tasted his chocolate on a visit to France.

When she contacted Corallo by email, he offered to send her some samples. Instead, she insisted on visiting him, flying from Japan to Lisbon to São Tomé, and finally taking the notoriously unreliable flight to Príncipe to see his plantation.

As she lay down to sleep in his plantation house the first night, she saw bats sweeping through the open windows. "The air makes circulation, the bats make circulation," says Corallo. "Very acrobatic."

The following night she booked herself into a hotel.

The culture shock was reversed when Corallo visited Tokyo last year. On his first day he lifted the toilet seat only to find instructions on how to warm the seat. "The energy to do that. Crazy!"

Chloé Doutre-Roussel, a fine chocolate expert, first introduced Corallo's bars to Britain when she was at Fortnum & Mason. She has visited São Tomé several times. She agrees with Christy's view that the chocolate is good, although not the finest. However, she admires his tenacity - and his honesty. Some chocolate-makers concoct less-than-truthful stories about the origins of their beans and the degree of care taken in production. Corallo, on the other hand, refuses to use positive labels he might easily adopt, such as "organic" and "slow food".

"He is the complete opposite of the sharks that use marketing to fool customers into buying their chocolate," says Doutre-Roussel. "He is in his own world, conducting this experiment with a wonderful obsession."

But an obsession can be draining. One evening, Corallo told me that for the first time in years he was feeling exhausted. Last year he and Bettina were divorced. She still handles the distribution side of the business from Lisbon, where she now lives with Ricciarda, but her absence is keenly felt.

After Bettina left, Corallo asked Niccoló, now a tall, mild-mannered 19-year-old, to postpone his final year of schooling to help him manage the business. It is not something he is proud of.

"I am now the number one for child labour - my own son," he says. "But without Niccoló I could not do this."

Later that night, when he took Niccoló and his younger son, Amedeo, 14, out to dinner at a seafront restaurant, Corallo perked up, excitedly picking out the Big Dipper in the sequinned sky.

He talked about the future. He aims to source more of his ingredients locally, which should help the other farmers on Príncipe. Already he has got some of them growing ginger, and he hopes to get cane sugar from them, too.

If that happens, he might try to make rum. Exporting smoked fish is another option. In a few years, if things improve in Congo, he might even be able to spend part of his time on his old coffee farm in Lomela, close to the jungle of his childhood dreams.

As he says, "My heart belongs in the middle of the forest."

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. His "Letter from Côte d'Ivoire" was published in our issue of 27 October 2008

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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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