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“We are within one explosion of having King Harry”

The acclaimed historian has long held royalist sympathies, but recent events have thrown him into do

In the sublime novel The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald evokes how the news of the French Revolution in 1793 reached provincial Saxony by means of the Jenaer Allgemeine Zeitung, the newspaper that the poet Novalis brought back from his university. Novalis’s old father, Freiherr von Hardenberg, says: “I don’t understand what I am reading . . . They are going to bring a civil action against the legitimate king of France!” In disgust, he resolves not to read another newspaper until the revolution has been defeated. His other son, Erasmus, however, believes that “the revolution is the ultimate event . . . a republic is the way forward for all humanity”. I sympathise with both points of view, while wishing that I shared the beauty of vision of Novalis, who believes: “It is possible to make the world new, or rather to restore it to what it once was, for the golden age was once a reality.”

What would make Britain new? We urgently feel the need for renewal, for refreshment, after a period of bad government. Would it help to get rid of the monarch and reach forward with “humanity” towards a political system in which anyone of great ability – a British Barack Obama or Nelson Mandela – could provide us with the inspiring leadership we need? Or is our way to the golden age only to be found in our rootedness, our connection with the past?

The cliché that the present Queen has “never put a foot wrong” during her long reign points to the nature of our dilemma. As head of state she did nothing discernible to prevent the horrendous abuses perpetrated by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown over the past 12 years. When Blair tried to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor in a fit of power-mad tinkering, who prevented him – indeed, pointed out that it was constitutionally impossible? Not the head of state, no, but the old Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine and a spirited group of backwoodsmen in the House of Lords.

It was easy to see New Labour’s objections to a second chamber crowded with hereditary peers and bishops; the House of Lords needed drastic reform. But Blair, who created more peers than any prime minister in history, filled the place with his chosen friends and some others who were suspected of having paid for the privilege. Besides this scandal, the expenses fiddles of MPs are small beer. George V, in comparable circumstances, refused to give out peerages and insisted his own ideas about parliament be carried out. What did our Queen do? Apparently, nothing.

At the very same time, the biggest foreign policy blunder since the period of the Second World War was being presented in the Commons as a fait accompli. The Queen, as both head of state and colonel-in-chief of many regiments that would be despatched in the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, should have said no – the majority of her people were against it, after all – but she was as spineless as the MPs who lined up in the lobby to vote in favour of war.

If a head of state has no power, what is it for? The old answer – given at the end of a documentary shown by the BBC 40 years ago – was that the key wasn’t to invest power in her, but to withhold it from politicians. Monarchs did indeed once exercise such a role: it could be argued that having a constitutional monarchy, when other nations were kicking out absolute monarchs and allowing absolutist dictators to take their place, saved Britain from being ruled by a Lenin or a Hitler. Alas, the Queen has let successive leaders grab ever more power. Now the prime minister enjoys presidential power without presidential authority; we have an elective dictatorship that has destroyed the legislature and conducted a criminal war.

If our democracy is to flourish, we need a head of state with more power, not less – one that can hold prime ministers to account and, if they commit crimes, sack them. If only Queen Eli­zabeth II had the intellectual, political and linguistic skills of Queen Elizabeth I, many people would support giving her some of the powers of an elected president. The trouble is, saintly as she might be as a person, she is politically incompetent. After the Iraq War, parliamentary collapse, and the Lords and expenses scandals, it is no longer possible to claim that all we need in the head of state is someone to carry out ceremonial roles – to distribute Maundy money and say a few clipped words to the recipients of damehoods or the British Empire Medal. The Queen’s refusal to check the power mania of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair was no doubt motivated by the fear that if she stepped out of line, there would be calls for a republic – it would “damage the monarchy”. But if the monarchy is as ineffectual as this, why should anyone care whether it is damaged or not?

The answer might be religious. The Queen is a pious woman, and when she was crowned she promised to uphold the Protestant religion. No future head of state will be able to take any such oath without seeming ridiculous. Most practising Christians in the country are Catholic; the huge majority of the population is either secularised or signed up to a non-Christian religion. Whereas the monarch’s religion used to be a unifying force, it would now be a cause of (possibly dangerous) division.

As someone who instinctively favours leaving things be, I do not much like the direction in which these thoughts lead me. Like many people in Britain, I have an affectionate respect for the Queen, and am surprised that I should be having such republican thoughts. In the past, I used to counter any such notions by asking myself: “Would you really want President Hattersley?”

I now find that possibility rather cheers me up. With his chubby, Dickensian features and his knowledge of T H Green and other harmless leftish political classics, Hattersley might not be such a bad thing after all.

I would not reach for the Kleenex during Hattersley’s Christmas broadcast, and he would look rather a chump in his red robes, but these are small prices to pay. I no longer consider him any more absurd, as a potential head of state, than any member of the House of Windsor. It would take only a few deaths – an outbreak of virulent swine flu during a shooting party at Sandringham, or a helicopter crash – for us to have Prince Andrew as head of state. Think about it, if you are a republican. If you are a monarchist, try not to.

Monarchists do best not to think about how the republican system has produced heads of state of the variety and calibre of Charles de Gaulle, Mary Robinson, Mandela and Obama. Yes, Prince William could turn out to be our Juan Carlos. Yet we are within one explosion of having King Harry.

My fear is that, whoever becomes the next prime minister, parliament will not set its house in order. As things in Westminster slither from bad to worse, with more irresponsible silence from Buckingham Palace, the republican argument will seem stronger. We need a politically intelligent head of state, and only an election could produce such a figure.

I had these thoughts in the week that the Dean of Westminster announced a plan to add a corona or some other architectural embellishment to the abbey, above the point in the transept where the monarch is crowned. I was privileged to be asked to join a small group for a walk around the abbey after it was closed, as the light of a high summer evening faded from the windows.

It is eerie being all but alone in Westminster Abbey. Without the tourists, there are only the dead, many of them kings and queens. They speak powerfully and put my thoughts into vivid perspective. Ever since Saxon times, we have crowned our monarchs here, and a high proportion of them are buried here, too. As I walked from the shrine of Edward the Confessor, past the splendid tomb of Henry III to the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, I asked myself whether I truly wished to bring the whole system to an end. Then, among the shadowy tombs I wondered whether, in a strange way, the end had already been reached? Was the Dean’s idea of building a corona over the next coronation throwing into focus that, for the first time in British history, many people do not want such a ceremony to take place at all? Or will it, on the contrary, lead to a great surge of monarchist feeling, such as I have myself from time to time?

Just before you enter Henry VII’s chapel, there is a tiny paving stone recording that Oliver Cromwell lay there for two years. That was before he was disinterred, hanged at Tyburn and mutilated. Deeply moved as I was, among the tombs, by the thousand years of history that they represent, I was also very moved by this stone. I could not help thinking that those, such as John Milton, who followed the Good Old Cause of Oliver Cromwell might yet have the last word.

I went home and opened my copy of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches by Carlyle – “Oliver is gone and with him England’s Puritans . . . The genius of England no longer soars Sunward, world-defiant, like an Eagle through the storms . . . the Genius of England, much liker a greedy Ostrich intent on provender and a whole skin mainly, stands with its other extremity Sunward, with its Ostrich-head stuck into the readiest bush . . . The Voices of our Fathers, with thousandfold stern monition to one and all, bid us awake.”

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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