A ceiling at the Church of Atotonilco, Mexico, featuring Christ and Judas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Show Hide image

Who was Judas: the man who was offered goodness and said “No”

Was Judas an evil man who chose to betray Christ of his own free will – or did God make him do it?

Different cultures make different judgements about what the worst of crimes might be. The Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, looking back on his complex history in the era of Stalin’s purges and the suppression of his greatest work, The Master and Margarita, wrote that cowardice was the greatest – or “one of the greatest” – of vices and put those words into the mouths of various figures in the novel, including Jesus.

It is a novel about evasion and denial, about the costs of survival in a corrupt world, about who finally is able to tell you the truth about yourself. Cowardice is trying to escape the knowledge of denial; that is why it is terrible. So, Pontius Pilate is left in isolation and despair after he has ordered Jesus’s crucifixion; he knows he has denied the possibility of being spoken to truthfully and is stranded with his own cowardice and with his consciousness of what it has cost. He has tried to escape this knowledge and failed.

The novel, in its wildly fantastic and exhilarating conclusion, allows him a final redemption, thanks to the intercession of Margarita, the lover of the “Master” of the title, a lonely, self-censoring novelist, deeply preoccupied with – of course – cowardice. And cowardice in this extraordinary book is a very specific kind of vice. It is about the denial of what you know to be true, or what you know to be above all desirable. It is about the betrayal of your own intelligence and your own emotion; survival at the cost of suicide.

That perspective perhaps helps us understand why Dante puts “traitors to their benefactors” in the lowest circle of the Inferno, trapped under the ice. It is probably not too clear to modern readers why Brutus, Cassius and Judas are presented as the ultimate in human depravity: is treachery so much worse than other sins? But a medieval reader might answer that one who repudiates a benefactor offends decisively against both love and justice: the traitor denies the voluntary gift of love that is offered and thus negates justice completely, refusing to give in return what is deserved.

The traitor represents the essence of sin: the arbitrary refusal of what is good. Like Satan, who grinds the bodies of the three arch-traitors in his teeth, they have every reason to know what is good. They have been as close as possible to absolute, free goodwill exercised towards them and they have chosen to say “No” to it, to the source of their own well-being. This horrible eternity of being dismembered and devoured is what happens when you deny what at some level you know is true and life-giving. It may be called cowardice in Bulgakov’s sense or betrayal in Dante’s but the underlying insight is the same: this is how we most effectively and incurably destroy ourselves.

Peter Stanford concludes his book Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by writing that Judas’s fascination is that he can “speak to both the betrayed and the betrayer in all of us”. He is a figure to think with. And what we are prompted to think about is this disturbing aspect of our humanity that is afraid of truth, or of justice, or indeed of love, because of their potentially subversive and uncomfortable consequences. They all, in one way or another, upset our hopes for control. In the figure of a paradigm traitor, we have something like a thought experiment: imagine being confronted unambiguously with unqualified love, or justice, or truth; and imagine yourself desperately mouthing sideways, “Get me out of this,” or, “Give me an excuse for not taking this seriously.” Something in human motivation prefers independence to life, prefers security in isolation to ecstasy, or thanksgiving, or simply emotional nourishment. The grotesque image of Judas in the Inferno is of a figure whose head is buried inside Lucifer’s mouth. He is silent and faceless; he is outside the risky conviviality and interdependence of language and human interaction. He is silent, as Satan, too, is silent and ice cold, with tears streaming down his cheeks.

So, Judas can be a vehicle for wondering what motivates the denial of love. It’s a question we can answer by telling various kinds of biographical stories. The bizarre medieval legends that Stanford summarises, which purport to chronicle Judas’s childhood and youth, sometimes portray an Oedipal drama in which he unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, so that his emigration to Judaea and his friendship with Jesus are an attempted new beginning. Yet there is something foredoomed about him; the legends are there so that the betrayal will not be a surprise, so that we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are not left with a void of explanation.

A more modern writer, the Irish poet George William Russell, known as “Æ”, came up with a less colourful but related thought when he wrote, “In the lost boyhood of Judas/Christ was betrayed.” We need a theory. We need to know that the impulse to deny love or truth can be made sense of at some level. We scan the school photographs or school reports of monstrous killers, looking for some sign that all was not well even then. A few weeks ago, we were gazing at the images of a young Mohammed Emwazi – sitting and grinning among the other children in his primary-school class – and wondering what we and everyone else had missed.

Both the impulse to find an explanation and the admission of failure to find a complete one are morally important. The traitor is not a monster with no history, no childhood, no processes of learning; yet we cannot turn the acceptance of monstrosity into a reasonable decision. Evil is conditioned by our history – the abused becoming an abuser, the betrayed becoming a betrayer – and is also a free self-definition.

There are quite a few theories about Judas. Perhaps he meant well; perhaps he wanted to trigger a crisis in which Jesus would have no choice but to display his divine power; perhaps he was disillusioned by Jesus’s passivity and commitment to non-violence, or (at the other extreme) by his egoism and self-delusion. There is no shortage of modern fictional explorations, from Robert Graves’s monumental alternative mythology in King Jesus to Naomi Alderman’s finely understated and polyphonic The Liars’ Gospel. But in certain respects, they have their roots in the earliest texts. Is there, in the way Judas’s betrayal is related by St John, a hint that the trigger was a public and humiliating rebuke by Jesus? And St John is the first to impute to Judas greed and dishonesty: he is the treasurer of the group of disciples and helps himself to funds. By the time – a good deal later – of the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas”, we have a first version of the idea that Judas is the one who really understands Jesus and does what is necessary to bring about his saving death, apparently with Jesus’s consent or even initiative.

Yet the existence of these imaginative projections, which have slender support in the primary texts, suggests that people felt uncomfortable with the idea of a sheerly arbitrary rejection of the good. Judas, like Shakespeare’s Iago, is difficult to leave alone. Surely there was something? “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know,” says Iago, inviting everyone else onstage to ask themselves what they know of themselves. Judas’s exit from the story as St Matthew tells it, in which he flings the 30 pieces of silver in the faces of the priests and rushes off to kill himself, has something of that chilling, defiant refusal to be scrutinised by those who need to scrutinise themselves first. It is of a piece with the strange detail in the Gospels that when Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him, all respond initially by asking, “Is it I?” It is as if they have already learned the lesson that no one can understand their betrayal – or their cowardice – in advance, that all are capable of giving way to the lure of denial.

All of us could choose darkness. We have to work hard and patiently to discern a glimpse of what prompts some people just that bit further; it is not a matter of predestination but a lethal entanglement in a spiral of destruction and, at some point, a more or less conscious decision that safety lies in going with the spin downwards.

This draws our attention to another disturbing aspect of the Judas story. At one point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus says that he “goes on his way” as has been fore­ordained – but that it would have been better for the man who betrays him never to have been born. For Jesus to achieve his liberating mission, someone must be the catalyst for the final confrontation and also must be destroyed by that confrontation. So is God responsible for Judas’s betrayal? If so, why should Judas be punished? And if the salvation of the world necessarily results in the death in suicidal despair of the predestined betrayer, is that a price worth paying?

These rather Dostoevskian questions leave both believer and unbeliever with unpalatable issues. Whether we are talking about God’s purposes or merely the achievement of definite human good by human means, the challenge is to answer if there are any courses of action to be taken for the sake of the good that are guaranteed to be free from a cost that has nothing to do with punishment and reward. Must it be the case that for anyone to be saved, someone must be damned?

Stanford touches rather sketchily on the theological conundrum implied here (quoting some unhelpfully muddled Vatican pundits apparently defending Judas on the grounds that someone had to be the betrayer, so perhaps we shouldn’t think too harshly of him after all); the complexities are not quite so soon exhausted. The late Donald MacKinnon, lecturing on the philosophy of religion in Cambridge in the 1960s, would return obsessively to this as an illustration of what was meant by the tragic. Are we in a universe where even the most unequivocal good imaginable can only be reached by a route involving an individual’s ruin? And this is one way of focusing a massive question about God and creation: we are told that a creation in which humans are free can be realised only by allowing into creation the possibility of things going wrong. But if “things going wrong” means the abuse and murder of children, genocide, torture, and so on, it rings hollow to say that these are a price worth paying. It simply isn’t possible to quantify suffering in this way, so as to decide that the overall cost benefit is still such as to make the bargain acceptable. Like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, we may well feel impelled to “return our tickets”, concluding that this simply is not a morally coherent way of looking at the universe.

MacKinnon also observed that the ruin of Judas was intimately related to some of what the Gospels seem to imply about the ruin of the Jewish people. Universal salvation is won, say the evangelists, because the chosen people reject Jesus – and, like Judas, they are savagely punished for that “rejection”, even though it is necessary in the scheme of things. Stanford has a good deal to say about the various anti-Semitic tropes that develop around the story of Judas, including the old slurs about Jewish greed. Medieval images frequently show Judas in characteristically Jewish dress or with stereotypical Jewish features; and Dante’s description of the circle of traitors to their benefactors as a “Giudecca” gives a particularly shocking dimension to his vision of the lowest hell. The name echoes that of Judas, as Dante says; but it is also the word often used for the ghettos of southern Italian cities. Well into the 20th century, Judas was still being used in anti-Semitic propaganda as a stock Jewish character.

So the issues around tragedy and God’s responsibility for evil are by no means distant or theoretical (given how hideously alive anti-Judaism is in Europe today). It will not quite do to suggest, as Hyam Maccoby did in an influential book much cited by Stanford, that the entire Judas story is deliberately created as a slur on the Jewish people, with a villain who has the ultimate Jewish name: Judas, like Jesus and Simon, was about as common a name in first-century Palestine as Thomas in Tudor England and there is no special reason to think that the name must be particularly significant. But it is undeniable that the fate of Judas, constantly re-presented, re-enacted, elaborated, was a regular focus for stirring anti-Jewish hatred and the “Christ-killing” stereotype was freely invoked in “blood libel” frenzies in the Middle Ages and afterwards.

It is true that Judas was also treated as the prototype of all usurers and bankers; medieval rhetoric against bankers could be as lurid as the modern variety. But the weight of symbolic significance unquestionably has to do with the demonisation of Jews. It is a long way from the terrified “Is it I?” of the disciples; or even the way in which, in the liturgy of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the entire congregation is invited to take responsibility for Jesus’s betrayal and death. Bach makes this clear in the St Matthew Passion, both by using Paul Gerhardt’s chorale with the words “It is I, I who must repent” as a response to “Is it I?” and by giving the penitent Judas a musical soliloquy that, like all the solo airs in the Passion, offers a framework for the hearer’s self-recognition.

The truth is that the history of Christian teaching and worship in this area shows all too plainly how easy it is to shift the focus from individual complicity in evil to the scapegoating of the other; and so much in the great literary/ritual/mythical complex of the Easter liturgies that is primarily directed at this complicity – and demands that we recognise precisely that impulse to turn away from the obvious and overwhelming good to one or another form of self-protective power – can be manipulated into another tool of such power.

The Judas story leaves some substantial questions open for believer and sceptic. There is no final, satisfactory theory about why Judas should perform this act of irrational refusal, this negative image of justice and love. There will have been, as there always are, contingent things that trigger destructive capacity in people but the mysteriousness of how these work – why one schoolchild becomes a killer in the Middle East and another a blameless engineer or care worker – ought to make us wary of thinking that the rejection of love is something only found in people who are Not Like Us. If we don’t know why someone becomes a psychotic murderer, we are accepting that the processes of the inner life are very dark to us and that this darkness clouds our self-understanding as it does our understanding of others. Judas does an evil thing and is to be held accountable for it. It is not a destiny forced on him. Yet we must also say that Judas does an evil thing and we have no idea why – and we have to recognise that we must go on thinking as hard as we can about what moves people to evil. The question about “lost childhoods” is a real one.

The other question, about freedom, about God’s “complicity” in the possibility of evil actions, has produced even less in the way of a final theoretical perspective. The nearest to a resolution seems to be the hope, sporadically expressed throughout Christian history, as Stanford notes, that there could be absolution for Judas. This says both that evil is real and appallingly destructive and that the pain and loss it brings are not the last word. It’s probably the best we can do in response to a question that we all know is formidable and that is still somehow lived with by believers who are not otherwise stupid or immune to pain. What is worth noting, though, is that it is not just a theological question. The problem of what costs are worth incurring for the sake of ultimate justice or ultimate peace is something that touches any decision maker, at any level; and the brick wall of tragic choice that stands at the centre of the Gospel story is a potent signal that it is a dangerous illusion to think there are courses of action in the world that are guaranteed not to bring loss – loss of moral substance and integrity, of life and security – whatever the generosity of intention.

Stanford sets all these and several more issues running in a wide-ranging and often engaging book. It could have done with at least one more edit: the order of chapters and their content is often rather chaotic; there are some wince-inducing slips of detail (Thomas Aquinas is described as a “Franciscan” theologian, when he is probably the best-known Dominican in history) and a fair bit of wobbliness in chronology and historical interpretation (Dante is not usefully described as a “Renaissance” figure); the style is a relentlessly breezy and colloquial journalese that occasionally grates when the subject matter is as serious as much of this is. I can’t quite see how the chapter on Judas in the iconography of East Anglian churches sits with the rest of the book; and there are awkward gaps in reference to literature, ancient and modern. But Stanford, a much-respected commentator on Catholic affairs, has unearthed some fascinating material and left his readers with more than enough material to prompt some echo of the question “Is it I?”

Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of Canterbury and a lead reviewer for the NS

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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