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Misunderstanding the present: Ed Miliband wants to govern a country that doesn’t exist

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of the past had a firmer grasp of reality than their contemporary counterparts.

Illustration by Matt Murphy

If anything defines Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, it is the belief that British politics has reached an inflexion point like the one that enabled Margaret Thatcher to come to power. He has often expressed admiration for Thatcher’s determination to effect radical change and, while having quite different goals, seems to see himself as a conviction politician in a similar mould. At the same time, he is said to believe that Labour can return to government by marshalling its core support. But it is hard to accept that the Labour leader – a formidably clever individual with a highly developed sense of having a distinctive political destiny – has really subscribed to this strategy.

Large-scale socio-economic changes have been eroding traditional voting patterns for many years. Now, with its Scottish bastions crumbling, its support among ethnic minorities weaker, working-class voters in the English north and Wales defecting to Ukip and the Greens posing a mounting challenge on the left that could deny it seats in marginal constituencies, Labour finds that the built-in advantage that it has as a result of the coalition’s failure to reform constituency boundaries can’t be relied on to make it the single largest party in the Commons.

But Miliband’s leadership isn’t based on psephological calculation of this kind. He is convinced, with Thatcher-like certainty, that Britain is ready for a fundamental shift in direction. Speaking to Jason Cowley in 2012, he declared: “For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interests to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works.”

In Thatcher’s case, the belief that Britain was ready for radical change reflected a palpable sense of national emergency, epitomised in the industrial conflicts of the mid-1970s, the IMF bailout of 1976 and the “Winter of Discontent”. For some today, the 1970s may represent the high point of British social democracy, a pre­lapsarian golden age that Thatcher wantonly destroyed; but at the time there was widespread acceptance that the postwar settlement was no longer viable. Few in mainstream politics or her party were prepared for Thatcher’s assault on the existing order. In academia, much of which was engrossed in introverted controversies over ephemeral orthodoxies such as postmodernism and structuralism, her policies came as a bolt from the blue. Even so, an expectation of impending upheaval was in the air.

It is easily forgotten that the 1970s were a time when sections of the political class were gripped by an apocalyptic sense of foreboding. James Callaghan may have scoffed at talk of crisis but the left was possessed by fantasies of building socialism behind the walls of a siege economy, while on the fringes of the right there was wild talk of a communist takeover and counter-coups. There is no comparable sense of national crisis at present. Many may resent the excessive rewards still being doled out in the financial sector; some may believe (as I do) that the marketisation of public services has gone too far and should be rolled back. A few may suspect that the financial crisis is far from over and the global economy is entering another dangerous phase. But there is no sense that the British brand of capitalism faces a crisis of its own. The conditions that allowed a shift of regime to occur in 1979 simply don’t exist today.

The belief that large numbers of voters are yearning for a major alteration in Britain’s political economy – a rejigged version of socialism, or some hypothetical variety of “non-predatory” capitalism – is a delusion that could be fatal for Labour as a party of government. Miliband is misreading British society in ways not altogether dissimilar to those that hobbled Labour in the 1980s and allowed the Conservatives to rule for nearly two decades. It is still imaginable that Labour could emerge in May with enough seats to cobble together a minority government with the support of the SNP, whatever remains of the Liberal Democrats and one or two Greens. It is inconceivable that such a government could endure and bring about anything like the transformation of which the Labour leader dreams.

Thatcher’s rise should serve as a warning to Miliband, not an inspiration. Her emergence as Tory leader was a mirror image of the rejection by Labour of Barbara Castle’s white paper In Place of Strife (1969) – a far-sighted programme of reform that could have removed one of the prime sources of conflict that brought Thatcher to power. If Castle’s proposals had been implemented, Thatcher’s rise would not have been possible. As it was, they were shelved by Labour and Castle remained, along with Denis Healey, one of the great leaders it never had. When it adopted the unelectable Michael Foot as leader in 1980 and split in 1981, Labour sealed its fate, with the SDP ensuring that Thatcher’s tenure in Downing Street went largely unopposed.

Thatcher’s rise was a chapter of accidents. If she had not been selected for Finchley in 1958, reportedly as a result of an electoral fraud committed without her knowledge, in what the outgoing Conservative MP is said to have described as a choice between “a bloody Jew and a bloody woman”; if potential rivals for the party leadership such as Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph had not, in one way or another, ruled themselves out; if her leadership campaign had not been ruthlessly managed by the wartime escaper and arch-intriguer Airey Neave, Thatcher would not have become prime minister. Again, if the Falklands war had turned out badly – as might easily have happened – she would not have survived opposition from within her party as long as she did. But overarching all these contingencies, the precondition of Thatcher’s success was Labour’s continuing failure.

Ed Miliband, photographed for the New Statesman by Kate Peters in 2012

Miliband likes to think that he can achieve something similar to Thatcher’s regime shift – this time towards a more collectivist political economy. But no such turn can command popular support. Thatcher’s vision of society is often described as backward-looking and in some respects it was: the country of her imagination was an ideal version of Britain in the 1950s, a cohesive society based on strong institutions. Ironically, that country was a creation of the Labour settlement that she was bent on dismantling. In the economy she achieved most of her objectives. The power of the unions was curbed, moribund industries were phased out and a more entrepreneurial business culture developed. In social terms the effect of her policies was the opposite of what she had intended. British society became more individualistic but at the same time markedly less bourgeois. The world of solid families and prudent savers to which she harked back was blown away by the choice-driven, debt-based consumer capitalism that she unleashed. She declared that the object of her economic policies was to change the soul of the country. They did – but not in the way she wanted.

The dutiful middle class that Thatcher celebrated is obsolete in a society ruled by an ethos of want-satisfaction and self-realisation. Many other factors contributed to this metamorphosis, not least the erosion of working-class communities by rapid economic change, which was also driven by advancing globalisation. But Thatcher’s policies were crucial. Through their unforeseen impact on social values, they helped obliterate the society she aimed to re-create.

The forces that thwarted Thatcher’s dream of restoring 1950s Britain pose an insuperable obstacle to Miliband’s project. The raffish capitalism that prevails today is Thatcher’s offspring. It is also an economic system that most voters have come to accept. Post-Thatcher Britain is in some ways more divided than the society it replaced. Certainly it displays larger inequalities of income and wealth. At the same time, it is less fixed in its hierarchies and notably less ready to defer to authority. An economy whose emblematic institutions are Primark and Poundland may look rather seedy in the eyes of high-minded moralists. But what reason is there for supposing that voters today will bow to the disapproving frown of any elite?

For the old guard in the party, Thatcher’s sin was not so much that she was a grocer’s daughter but that she refused to emulate its faux-patrician attitudes. Thatcher destroyed the culture of deference in Britain.

For many today, the sniffy view of Britain emanating from the bourgeois enclave of Hampstead, north London, looks decidedly patronising. It’s not that Miliband despises the world that the majority of people inhabit. He just can’t enter into it. This isn’t only his problem, of course.

Labour risks an acute form of the voter alienation that affects all the mainstream parties. It is like other parties in drawing its leaders from a narrow and privileged social stratum: the metropolitan professional classes who can afford to live in good catchment areas or send their children to be educated privately and then support them through years of unpaid internships and think-tank positions. But the rise of this political class is a special vulnerability for a party that claims it speaks for working people. Labour’s problem is that it has only one Alan Johnson. Soon it will have none.

Contrary to Miliband’s Blairite critics, there is no way forward in trying to re­occupy the middle ground. In a time when mainstream politicians are objects of disgust and contempt, the middle ground (if it exists) is no longer a safe place to be. Voters want something different – hence the rise in support for parties of protest. There is a common view that the party system will quickly revert to normalcy, as it did following the upheavals and fragmentation of the 1970s. But if Scotland is in the process of hiving off to form its own political system in a more radically devolved Union, this is an unlikely scenario. Even if the SNP fails to make a breakthrough at Westminster as large as many are expecting, the Scottish Labour contingent is going to be much reduced. With small parties taking larger numbers of seats, coalitions will be hard to hold together. Unsteady minority governments could be the norm for some time. Yet it is not difficult to envision circumstances in which the Conservatives adapt best to this changed political landscape.

Labour will have a future in these new conditions only if it has something new to say. The trouble with Miliband is that he cannot speak a language that voters understand. His instinctive bent is towards a type of academic discourse that has zero popular appeal. If thinkers of the left in the 1970s were absorbed in the fantasy politics of academic Marxism, Miliband is captivated by abstruse fancies such as “predistribution” – the theory, developed by an academic at Yale, according to which inequality can be prevented by changes in the economy, so that old-fashioned redistribution won’t be necessary. Does anyone expect an intellectual conceit of this kind to resonate in the supermarket or the pub?

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of an older generation had a more reliable sense of reality. It is impossible to imagine Harold Wilson or James Callaghan turning for intellectual succour to a writer such as Thomas Piketty, who has been feted by Miliband’s inner circle. These old Labour warhorses would spot at once the hole at the heart of Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century: no agency is identified that could counteract the built-in tendency to inequality that the book diagnoses.

In this regard, Piketty illustrates a disabling weakness of centre-left thinking at the present time. Whether they take their cue from legalistic philosophies of justice and rights or Marxian theories rejigged with the paraphernalia of contemporary econo­mics, the bien-pensants who are Labour’s leading lights today proceed on the basis that analysis and argument can in themselves have a political effect.

Miliband can hardly be unaware of the gap between how he thinks of politics and how ordinary voters live. But the upshot is speeches such as the one he gave at the Labour conference in September 2014, a dire threnody to togetherness that could have come straight from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.

What was most significant in the speech, however, was what it left out. As many have pointed out, there was no mention of immigration or the deficit. No less significantly, Europe featured only as an occasion for vacuous pieties on the need for reform. Considered in the context of Miliband’s project of a new political economy, it is a telling omission. British capitalism has many ugly blemishes. But where is the European model that the left has lauded for its superior moral attributes?

The social market economy has been shredded by the austerity programmes that have become integral to the European project. The eurozone is now a failing neoliberal construction, with levels of economic dereliction and long-term unemployment in many countries (including France) that far exceed anything to be found in Anglo-Saxon economies.

Moreover, European governance is clearly unreformable. The Byzantine system of transnational agencies operating in the shadow of a German imperial veto has allowed a programme of quantitative easing (QE) to be launched by the ECB. But with the interest rate already so low, QE in the eurozone at the present time will have less impact than the programmes that staved off depression in the US and the UK. Europe can do little on the fiscal front, since it does not have a fiscal union or anything that resembles an effective government and never will. In the absence of economic growth, deflation will tighten its grip and economic activity will be stunted across much of the continent. At the same time, politics will become more extreme, volatile and polarised.

Ed Miliband at the 2013 Labour Party conference. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Not so long ago, there was a centre-left tradition of Euroscepticism, which included figures such as Peter Shore, Bryan Gould, Austin Mitchell (and, for that matter, Hugh Gaitskell). Miliband is parroting the delusional consensus of the past few years: the belief that Britain’s long-term future is inevitably in ever closer union with a united Europe.

His unwillingness to commit to a referendum (except under ill-defined conditions in which more power passes to European institutions) may be partly pragmatic in rationale: he does not want to be bogged down in the European question in the event of minority Labour rule. But there is a deeper reason for this stance. Along with the rest of his party, Miliband believes that the future lies with ever more supranational forms of government. To stand aside from this movement would be to place Britain “on the wrong side of history”. There is no factual basis for this piece of progressive wisdom. If Syriza’s victory in Greece does not fracture the eurozone, coming elections in other countries will. Podemos could enter government in Spain and the anti-euro Five Star Movement will grow stronger in Italy, while in France Marine Le Pen will edge closer to the Élysée Palace. Everything points to the European project being derailed by the rising power of parties of the radical left and right.

Plainly, the right is better prepared than Labour to respond to ongoing disintegration in Europe. Yet the beneficiary won’t necessarily be David Cameron. A nimble-footed but essentially insignificant figure, he is as committed as Miliband to an impossible programme of European reform. Others are tooling up to take advantage of the political opportunities the European situation is creating. While Boris Johnson is reinventing himself as a One-Nation Tory, Theresa May is morphing from the scourge of “the nasty party” to a steely defender of public order.

Like Miliband, Cameron may be able to form a government if he can put together enough support from small parties – in his case, the Ulster Unionists and Ukip. But given how intensely he is disliked in his own party, it is hard to see the Tory leader lasting for long in such precarious circumstances and any successor is bound to be more Eurosceptic. The analogy often made between Labour’s divisions in the 1980s and Tory splits on Europe is misplaced. There is no pro-European faction left in the Conservative Party, only a number of more or less radical versions of Euroscepticism, with Cameron increasingly isolated in his determination to keep Britain inside the EU.

An outcome in May that favours Miliband will make Brexit more probable. Whatever Nigel Farage may believe, British voters are not desperate to be out of Europe. The halfway house that Britain has inhabited – in the EU but outside the euro – has proved perfectly tolerable. An in-out referendum in 2016 or 2017 would most likely produce a vote in favour of remaining semi-detached. Voters will not opt to leave until they are persuaded that the status quo has ceased to be viable – and they are not yet convinced. But held against a background of a worsened situation in Europe by a Tory government with a new and more Eurosceptic leader, a later referendum could well take Britain out. In this respect, it is the Conservatives who are on “the right side of history”.

Miliband has waxed on vaguely about a new type of economy. He has had little definite to say on the large issues that confront the UK. No doubt he wants to avoid hostages to fortune. But his silence comes at a cost in uncertainty. If Labour emerges as the largest party in May, he faces the likelihood of needing the support of an expanded SNP presence at Westminster. How will he respond if the price of SNP support is the closure of the Trident base at Faslane – the one demand that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have made clear is not negotiable?

There may be arguments for downgrading or decommissioning Britain’s nuclear deterrent. With the principal threats coming from terrorism and cyber attacks, it is questionable how much this costly relic of the cold war contributes to national security. Yet is it sensible for the question to be decided as part of a deal to shore up a short-lived minority government?

Ed Miliband’s project amounts to a ragbag of populist measures. Energy price controls were probably never workable. Following the fall of the oil price, Labour has quietly dropped them, but they illustrate the unreality of Miliband’s thinking. The British economy can’t be managed as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. Tinkering about with utility charges that are largely set by global market forces is as absurd as the left’s idea of building socialism behind a wall of protectionism was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Politics after the election is likely to be fraught and financial markets hate uncertainty. What would they make of a government that relied on the support of a party, the SNP, which, if it had prevailed in the Scottish referendum, would now be presiding over a fiscally failed state? Whatever the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 may say, a run on the pound would bring a Miliband administration to an end long before the appointed term had been completed.

When Miliband compares himself with Thatcher, he reveals an impressive degree of self-belief. He also shows a lack of understanding of British politics over the past thirty years. There may be a regime shift afoot in Britain but, if so, it is a second act in the one that began in 1979. Now, as then, it is Labour’s failure that is pivotal. A few years hence, as he contemplates the British scene from the distant sanctuary of Harvard or Yale, Ed Miliband may come to understand how he opened the way to another era of Conservative rule.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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