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How the left was lost: the need to relearn what true progress means

Incomprehensible scholasticism, emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure.

Image: Sonia Roy/


The word “progress”, which signifies a “going forwards”, cannot have a fixed meaning. In these quickly changing times, we have to ask what is really future-directed and in the majority interest, as the far right advances. If “progress” is not to be measured by the statistics of “growth”, by the pretended success of a “pro-competition and pro-enterprise agenda”, by open borders, by a moral free-for-all and the rest of it, what is the alternative?

Certainly it is not “socialism”. Its time has come and gone, whether in its state-socialist or in its innocently idealist forms. In particular, the “working class” has never been further from dethroning capital, and has itself been near consumed by market forces. The classless utopia dreamed of in Marx’s heaven was an illusion, while the collapse of communism took socialism down with it, too.

Rifling through the goods on the free market’s stalls from Milan to Moscow and Birmingham to Beijing, the productive “proletarian” has turned into a mere shopper, poor as may be. It is market-thought (not Marxist thought) which now promises humanity’s salvation, and with the same degree of illusion. In times that have brought Starbucks to Hanoi, even the word “socialism” – let alone “class” – is increasingly avoided in public debate, including by most British “progressives”; and few readers of the New Left Review or the London Review of Books would swap Islington and Hampstead for Pyongyang or Havana.

State socialism’s failures have made the privatisation (or theft) of public goods seem to many a virtue, and the common good appear synonymous with the good of the market. Even modest measures of economic regulation and social intervention – let alone renationalisation – are condemned by the free marketeer as “socialist”, while the freedom to exploit others is seen as an expression of freedom as such. There is little “working-class solidarity” now, and protest is sporadic.

The out-of-date “progressive” must therefore reckon with the fact that despite the free society’s dangerous inequalities, bank crises, cuts in welfare provision, real-estate bubbles and youth unemployment, today’s collapsing liberal democracies cannot be saved from themselves by socialists of whatever stripe or kind. They had their chances and blew them.

In Britain, to make matters worse, the trade unions have been harmed by their Tammany practices, falling memberships and overpaid leaders, while MI5 “Trotskyites” skilfully discredited the British left in the 1970s and 1980s, steering it to self-destruction. Even May Day was cancelled by Mrs Thatcher, while “Blairism” ate away at the old Nonconformist and upright Labour ethic to its very core, an ethic of mutuality, decency, equity and co-operation. Or as Peter Mandelson declared in October 1998 when he was Labour’s trade and industry secretary, “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.” It was the most repellent statement made in Labour’s name since the party was founded.

In order to stake out new ground for the true progressive, nothing less than a new (and very old) chapter in political thought is needed. Most sectarian “left” intellectuals – who always needed the working class more than it needed them – are not much use for the task, endlessly talking to themselves in their private enclaves. Some, like Tony Benn, were mere flatterers of the “lower orders”. Other pretended class warriors went off to well-paid jobs in the US once the Marxist tide in Britain had ebbed, while more moderate left and pseudo-left thought was impoverished by banal “Third Way” nostrums made of chalk and cheese.

Incomprehensible scholasticism, “fluttering over its bookes”, as Thomas Hobbes expressed it, and emanating from the nether darkness of academia where nothing grows, has contributed with its jargon to the left’s failure. Talk of “class struggle” was plain enough. But it gave way to the mystifying nonsenses of structuralism and semiotics, with their “narratives”, “discourses” and “tropes”, their “moments”, “shifts” and “ruptures”: the language of political and moral paralysis.

With socialism at the end of its historical evolution, the “left” now lacks a coherent sense of what progress is. It has only a ragbag of causes and issues, rational and irrational, urgent and idle: a politics of personal rights and “lifestyle choices”, of anti-racism and environmental protection, of multicultural separatism, individual identity and gender, and much else besides.

Neither rhyme nor reason – and certainly not socialist reason – can be made of it, especially when mere transgression is confused with progress. In fact, we are now landed with a “left” concept of freedom which is little different from Milton Friedman’s “right to choose”, a libertarianism that has overshadowed the social in what used to be socialism. It is itself a market freedom; after all, self-restraint has less market worth than self-indulgence. Nor is today’s “freedom’n’liberty”, whether right or “left”, the freedom fought for in the Reformation or in the revolutionary overthrow of the anciens régimes. It is not the freedom for which the 19th-century emancipationists and the suffragettes struggled. It is the freedom to do what one wants and the devil take the hindmost. No wonder that the far right is advancing.

There is ignorance, too, in this pseudo-left libertarianism. It is reactionary, not progressive, to promote the expansion of individual freedoms without regard to the interests of the social order as a whole. Those who want the right to choose, and who object to moral or social restraint as “authoritarian”, cannot logically object to the rights of Capital to do whatever it wants also. The rapacious equity trader has as much right to be free as you or me; these “rights” differ only in scale and consequence, not in essence.

Together we are smashing the essentials of any society, and especially a free society, in the name of a false notion of freedom. “Doing what one wants, as happens in democracies, is the very reverse of beneficial,” as Aristotle put it. Instead, as I will argue, restraints on some forms of liberty are essential to both individual and public well-being, and therefore essential to a new definition of what is truly progressive.

Yet most on the “left” have lost their way in the political desert created by socialism’s demise. Or, as Ed Miliband declared in his first conference speech as party leader in September 2010, Labour’s purpose – with “growth” as “our priority” – is to “expand freedom and opportunity for all our people”. This was Milton Friedman’s aspiration, too. “I am determined to make Labour the party of enterprise,” Miliband added for good measure. In February this year, he also pledged to govern with the same sense of conviction as Thatcher. It is not possible. The damage done by Tony Blair to Labour purposes and to its former movement has been too great, and Miliband’s political inheritance is too incoherent, for such resolve. It is also unfair to accuse him of being “weird”. Anyone attempting to make public sense of Labour’s “project” would be hit by a speech defect.

But that Labour should be wandering about in circles in ideological limbo when a “top football star” earns as much in a week for kicking a ball as a nurse earns in ten years for the care of the sick remains astounding. “Growth” brings wealth to some and increasing indigence to many, yet the discrediting of socialism is such that increased public spending or hiking the minimum wage raises the spectre of a “leftism” that would be “anti-business” and “hostile to wealth creation”, rather than helping to save a disintegrating free society from itself.

All that remains for Labour to do, it seems, is to work on its “brand” – but it has no “brand” – and give its leader a cosmetic makeover. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists are said no longer to vote Labour, and rootless consumption rules. “What I’m about is how do we make markets work properly in the public interest?” Miliband clumsily declared in May; his “Trotskyite” father, with his professed contempt for “parliamentary socialism” itself, would turn in his grave to hear of a project so paltry. Instead, these times of greed, “growth” and globalisation – while Islam advances and free societies degrade to the benefit of the far right – demand bold reconsideration of what being “progressive” should mean today.

Most important of all, now, is the defence of reason. Today, true progressivism must above all be secular. It must pit itself against the advance of obscurantism in the free society in order to protect
our – yes, our – Enlightenment’s hard-won conquests in the realms of political and ethical thought.

What obscurantism? The obscurantism that is expressed, for example, in racism, or in the more benighted provisions of sharia law and Islamic practice, which would impose its ways even in non-Muslim lands. With the arms of reason, but if necessary by authoritarian sanction also, progress must hold out against all who would intrude darkness of mind upon us, an intrusion increasingly justified by libertarians in the very name of liberty.

Certain forms of feverish or hysterical belief are merely absurd: superstitious food taboos, for example – halal or kosher. Others are fearsome, as is the case with the barbarisms of FGM, against which western feminism has been able to do little. The excision of the clitoris is not Enlightenment’s work, yet “progressives” have not turned out in their thousands in Trafalgar Square to protest it. Reason is also repelled, and mental progress also set back, by the stigmata of a Padre Pio or the obsessional nitpicking of ultra-Orthodox Hebraism. But the fatwa death sentence against Salman Rushdie was in a league of its own.

Islam is right to scorn the “infidel’s” bending of the knee to plaster saints, holy relics, bleeding martyrs and other idols. But Islam is wrong and must be fought by true progressives – Michael Gove is one such, in this respect – if it should seek to shackle our hard-won freedoms of thought and speech, and most grossly wrong if it attempts to do so in education’s name.

Instead, it is the most important of all truly progressive causes to help each new generation, whatever its origins, to make sense of our increasingly embattled and complex times. The rule of reason must be taught; it is Enlightenment’s continuing task as a means of societal self-defence. Yet educational standards are falling at the very moment when the need for knowledge of our – yes, our – history and culture, traditions, language and literature is growing. Why the need? Because such knowledge is future-directed, in the interests of the majority, and therefore progressive; while the true reactionary of today, backwards-looking, describes as “elitists” those who want to see higher standards.

Here, as in so many areas of debate, truth about the free society’s woes is stopped in its tracks by “political correctness”. It is a creed as rigid as any religious dogma. In some instances it dictates a just sensibility in language, and objects to insult and incitement, but for the most part it is a form of reactionary self-censorship driven by cowardice. It blocks reason with repressive taboos about what may be said and (almost) about what should be thought. At its command, crime rates are said to be falling even when they are rising, and educational standards rising when they are falling. The true progressive must reject such political correctness as yet another orthodoxy of mind, a product of fear of the truth.

The pseudo-progressive’s “non-judgementalism”, holding its tongue, is no virtue either. Without moral judgement of our mounting ills there will be no true progress in social reform. Equally dishonestly, pseudo-progressives, letting down the secular cause, keep quiet about aspects of the morality of Islam that they would not tolerate for themselves. Similarly, fear of being thought an “Islamophobe” is more potent among pseudo-progressives than fear of radical Islam itself. True progressives in the 1930s were not so scared of reason’s foes. They knew unreason for what it was, and rallied their political and intellectual forces against it.

On the right, bad faith is also rife, as when it denies the worldwide harms that corporate interests and free markets cause. On the “left”, equal falsehoods rule: “Family life’s the best it’s been for a thousand years,” a Guardian columnist told readers in May 2012. Moreover, phoney progressives make their own pick’n’mix selection of ills on which to focus and ignore others, or oppose measures to deal with them. Their politically correct, “non-judgemental” and random concerns are easily understood. They help fill the hole in the ground where the “socialist project” once stood, and are surrogates for real belief.

The pseudo-progressive’s refusal to face up to the lost sense of identity, place and nation in today’s free societies leaves the field even wider open to reaction. Indeed, “political correctness” denotes as “right-wing”, or even as “fascist”, those new and true progressives, or forward-thinkers, for whom tradition is not a “deadweight”, “law and order” is not a matter for mockery and mass migration not a boon, and for whom belief in nation does not make one a Nazi. What was the New Statesman called from 1931 to 1957? The New Statesman and Nation. Perish the thought, says the dumb political corrector.

Today, true progressives must come to terms with a hard fact: that neither socialist nor libertarian prescriptions can deal with the free society’s accelerating disintegration. Wishy-washy centrists, for their part, need to recognise that a market-driven liberal democracy such as ours, with a few human rights protections thrown into the mix, does not stand at the summit of political evolution.

Meanwhile, the far right waits at the ruined city’s gates. Why ruined? Because the combination of a market free-for-all and pseudo-progressive libertarian excesses is bringing the whole lot down. Yet some on the loony libertarian “left” believe that we are living in a “police state”; they did not know Honecker’s East Germany or Ceausescu’s Romania, as I did. The truth is quite different: civil society, which was wrecked in the “Soviet bloc” by state socialism, is being wrecked now in the name of “freedom”.

Indeed, most members of the free society are no longer real citizens at all. What was once a polity is now largely composed of rights-bearing isolates, wheeling their trolleys through a shopping mall in unending file. Disoriented by its swirl of entitlements and choices and overwhelmed by incomers – forget the political correctness – democratic politics is increasingly helpless in the face of the free society’s disorders.

Mainstream parties are in fluid motion, most of them searching in confusion for the “centre ground”. “What is to be done?” is an old political question. It is a question that most of our democratic politicians cannot answer, while the far right’s knocking at the door gets louder.

The true progressive must start recoiling in earnest from the free-for-all in the market’s merry-go-round, in which most bounds are broken, relationships founder, the collapse of self-esteem quickens, and the search for palliatives grows more despairing. It is also clear that redemptions by coke, Botox or a gastric staple are poor alternatives to the devout Muslim’s vision of Paradise Garden.

Even the sense that we belong to a social order is evaporating. It is untaught in school and lost from view in the digital limbo most of us inhabit, while the term “civil society” is largely unknown. There could be 15 billion people in the planet’s global market by 2100, bringing even more flux and disaggregation.

Yet despite the quickening dissolution of the free society, public institutions that stand at the heart of the body politic continue fatally to be sold off, to the harm of the ethos of community service itself. Private contractors in free societies now collect taxes, manage citizen databases, gather military intelligence, conduct army recruitment, patrol borders, control air traffic, preside over and even own prisons, deport illegal migrants and operate key areas of the social security system – for profit. As citizen-identity wanes to disappearance, it is a civic philosophy, not “socialism”, or “statism”, which demands the taking-back of the purloined public domain. The provision of public goods by public authority is an essential component of civil society’s very existence.

Worst of all is the unscrupulous belief that nothing is owed by us for the rights we possess. Instead, true progressivism in a free society demands a politics and ethics of duty. If freedom is to survive, we must fulfil our obligations to the civic order to which we belong (or may have recently joined), the civic order that serves us. There must be reciprocity between our rights and our duties, or the far right will insist upon it for us, to the greater harm of millions.

It is a civic consciousness, not a class consciousness, that we need. Pluralism, yes; but we are citizens before we are Christians, Jews, Muslims, or freethinkers.

That is the true centre ground, or foun­dation, on which state, civil society and nation stand; indeed, a lively and popular sense of nation is a valuable source – among others – of identity in dangerously identity-less times. Above all, to rescue our sense of civic belonging and obligation from the self-regarding libertarianism and anti-“moralising” of the phoney progressive is the work of true progress, if the far right’s hankerings for a “new order” are to be countered. 

David Selbourne’s “The Principle of Duty: an Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order” (1994) was republished by Faber & Faber in 2009

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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