On the margins

Most Scots live in the narrow corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow, yet their country's identity s

Scotland the Brand has its easily identifiable markers: Balmoral, kilts, whisky and four-legged haggises. Scotland the Ridiculous has Billy Connolly and the Tartan Army. And Scotland the Political has the Barnett Formula, devised by the UK Treasury to ensure a fair allocation of public funds to the mysterious creatures north of the border, and seen by English taxpayers as a device for bleeding England dry.

But what of Scotland the Reality? The vast majority of Scots live in the narrow, 50-mile east-west corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The world knows it well. It is the world of endemic sectarianism, Taggart, Trainspotting, grim housing estates, heart attacks and, almost incidentally, some of Britain's most renowned universities, medical schools and art galleries.

The Highlands, by contrast, are home to a tiny fraction of the population. Yet they contain a huge proportion of Scotland's land mass. On the two-hour journey from Perth to Inverness, the road skirts a chain of small towns to its east, but to the west lie only thousands of acres of hostile mountain and barren moorland. North of Inverness, the vast interiors of Caithness, Ross and Sutherland are virtually uninhabited. Mere fragments of the native population remain, as rare as the remnants of the great Caledonian Forest. Their ancient Gaelic language is lost, but the memory of past injustices still lingers.

Here, landowners are hated and poachers venerated, and crofters have jumped at the chance to arrange community buyouts of their native soil. The crofters of Assynt in north-west Sutherland set the precedent by buying out the loathed Vesteys.The people of the island of Gigha in the Inner Hebrides followed suit; and now crofter buyouts are flavour of the month. The days of Highland fiefdoms owned by City millionaires and reclusive pop stars are numbered. The land is going back to the people.

In the Highlands, distance renders prohibitive the cost of providing health clinics, ambulances and even GPs. Indeed, such is the cost of providing out-of-hours medical care that one Highland doctor is reputed to be the best-paid in Britain. The figure quoted is £300,000 a year: an exaggeration, no doubt, but denials are carefully worded.

In the Highlands, thousands of miles of road have to be maintained, under the most ferocious weather conditions, by a tiny number of council-tax payers. One redoubtable inhabitant of Raasay, an island adjacent to Skye, lobbied his local council for years asking for a road to his isolated hamlet. He eventually gave up, and started building the road himself. It was two miles long and 12 feet wide, up a steep, bouldered hillside, and he had only a succession of wheelbarrows (replaced as each one wore out), a sledgehammer, a shovel and a crowbar. It took him 20 years (1964-84), and the epic task was immortalised in a splendid book, Roger Hutchinson's Calum's Road.

This is the area, too, where the whole eco-nomy hinges on tourism. Once, hospitality to strangers was a sacred duty. Now, necessity has made it a commercial exercise. Crofts become caravan sites and homes become bed-and-breakfast establishments. The season is short, and at the mercy of the weather, the exchange rate and suicide bombers - and, while it lasts, the temptation to fill every vacant space with a lettable bed is well nigh irresistible.

On the margins of this Highland extremity lies another, even more extreme: the Western Isles. They have a population of 35,000 in total, and form a parliamentary constituency in their own right. Most Scots have never seen them. Fewer still understand them. This explains such stories as the one about the man from the north-west mainland who phoned NHS 24 (Scotland's NHS Direct) and was told to go to the A&E department of Lewis Hospital, a mere 30 miles away. NHS 24 didn't seem to know that this was 30 miles as the crow flies, and that even if he were a crow he would still have to fly over raging seas.

Electorally, this is one of Scotland's most marginal constituencies. The Tories have no support, apart from one of my sons, though it helps that their candidate is a local man able to chat up the cailleachs (Gaelic for venerable old ladies). There was such a Tory candidate once, in the Thatcher years, who had a fair old chat-up with one such voter. When he eventually rose to go. he said, "I'll be having your vote, then." "Yes, dear," said the cailleach warmly, "anything to get that woman out!" Her assumption had been that such a nice man couldn't possibly represent the Iron Lady.

In this constituency, language matters. It is the only one in the world where Gaelic is still a living tongue, and both the MP, Angus Brendan MacNeil, and the local MSP, Alasdair Morrison, are former stars of the Gaelic media. The SNP's candidate for the Scottish Parliament, Alasdair Allan, made history by being the first student ever to submit his PhD thesis in Gaelic. The one certainty in this election is that the successful candidate, whoever he is, will be sending his children to a Gaelic-medium school.

And here religion matters. The southern isles in the Hebridean chain are Catholic, the northern ones Presbyterian, but relations between them have never been marred by sectarian bigotry. On the other hand, neither group has been much impressed by Labour's record on so-called ethical issues. The islands will still not provide facilities for gay marriages and, in the current stand-off between Catholic adoption agencies and the government, Catholics and Protestants alike are backing the Church.

But religion will not be a key issue. This is a sophisticated electorate, its passions fuelled by incessant public debate. The issue currently dividing the community is the proposal to pepper the moors of Lewis with Europe's hugest windfarms. The opposition has formed itself into a powerful lobby group, Mointeach gun Mhuilinn ("Moorlands Without Turbines"), and there have been accusations of strong-arm tactics and intimidation. When one islander admitted his support for windfarms, the response was: "I'm glad to hear it. I'm for them, too, but I've been frightened to say it." A petition organised by Moorlands Without Turbines received 5,000 signatures; when Lewis Wind Power recently submitted a planning application for 181 turbines, there were 3,500 objections; and when the application was granted, the distinguished local broadsheet, the Stornoway Gazette, carried a whole page of letters, almost all of them anti.

Paradox of Union

One of the prevailing fears is the visual impact of these monsters, if situated close to villages. The obvious place for them would be the thousands of acres of uninhabitable peaty wilderness at the heart of the island, but there, it is said, the risk to birds is too great. As ever in the Highlands, we shall inconvenience the people instead.

For decades, the Western Isles was solidly Labour, the only rural constituency in Britain to show this trend. The socialist vote reflected the links between the islands and Glasgow, where Isles men worked in the shipyards and learned their politics from Red Clydesiders in the tradition of Keir Hardie, James Maxton and Emman uel Shinwell. Labour was the party of the poor.

It was also the party of the Union, and though the islands now teeter on the brink of separatism, this would have been unthinkable in the 1940s and 1950s. Decades of association with the Royal Navy, in peace and war, had bred a strong sense of Britishness. In fact, on the outbreak of the Second World War, a written answer in the House of Commons showed that one-quarter of Britain's naval reservists came from the Western Isles.

All this bred a lifelong pride in the British navy and a sense of Britishness that survived not only the Second World War, but also the fact that the casualty rate in the Western Isles was the highest in the country. Patriotism still flourished in the 1950s. I well remember one veteran expressing dismay at the weakness of the British response to some provocation from President Abdel Nasser. "And, of course," he said in disgust, "Britain sends a protest!" The man wanted to send a battleship. Few young islanders today could even begin to understand such a sentiment.

It is part of the paradox of the Union that the most neglected region in Scotland is the one closest to England: the Borders. Here is a farming community still traumatised by the most recent foot-and-mouth epidemic; and, in the midst of it, countless Edinburgh-dependent suburbs without a rail link to the capital.

How is this discontent manifesting itself? The odd thing is that it isn't. The Highlands have been eloquent advocates in their own cause, mobilising poets, novelists, journalists, dramatists and politicians to articulate their grievances. That's why the whole world knows about the Highland Clearances, Culloden and Glencoe. And that's why we've had the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Crofters Commission, the Gaelic Broadcasting Committee, the Gaelic Books Council, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and even, for a time, a minister for the Highlands.

The Borders have had no such political structures. They've had their own clearances, their own land shortages and their own forced emigrations, but their discontent has found only a muted voice. They were once as famed for their minstrels as they were feared for their marauders, but the music has died on their lips. It probably died through loss of hope. The UK, including the rest of Scotland, feels guilty about the Highlands. It doesn't feel guilty about the Borders.

In the forthcoming election, the big battalions will be those of the central belt and of Scotland's media village. But Highlanders, Islanders and Borderers may hold the balance of power.

The author is is professor of systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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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