Grace under pressure: Jarvis on a tour in northern Iraq, where he was responsible for security in the critical Rumaila oilfields.
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From war to Westminster: is Labour's Dan Jarvis a future Prime Minister?

In 2007, Dan Jarvis led a unit of paratrooners in Helmand Province. Four years later, he became MP for Barnsley Central. Xan Rice meets him and asks: could he go even higher?

In 2007, four years before becoming a Labour MP, Major Dan Jarvis was asked to lead a company of 150 men on a six-month mission into Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His unit, mainly paratroopers, was part of the Special Forces Support Group, the newest wing of the UK special forces.

The full details of Jarvis’s task remain classified, but it involved recruiting and training local volunteers to serve in the Afghan Territorial Force, an elite unit charged with taking on the Taliban. Jarvis was 34 and highly experienced, having served in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone and completed multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he knew this mission would be his most dangerous and challenging yet.

On a previous deployment to Helmand in 2005, as part of a small reconnaissance team helping the British army decide where to focus its efforts in southern Afghanistan, he had been able to walk through the streets and bazaars. Now, with the insurgency raging, the only way in and out was by helicopter. Jarvis’s unit would be based at a remote fort. In desert terrain littered with improvised explosive devices and mines, the men would travel long distances in Land Rovers lined with ballistic matting – “basically a reinforced car seat”.

“The level of threat was very high and the level of protection relatively low,” is how Jarvis puts it. It was the sort of mission he had dreamed of. “I had aspired throughout my army career to lead a company of paratroopers in these very difficult circumstances,” he told me. “It was a fantastic professional opportunity.”

But Jarvis was conflicted. Unlike some of the younger men on his team, he had a family. When he first went to Iraq, in 2003, during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it was only two days after his wife, Caroline, had given birth to a son by emergency Caesarean section. Now he also had a young daughter, born just days before he had returned from another tour of Iraq. Caroline was aware of the risks her husband faced; he had known ten of the first 100 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And she was fighting her own battle, having been diagnosed with bowel cancer the previous year.

“Quite a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Why the hell were you in Afghanistan at that point?’” Jarvis says. “It was because Caroline had undergone treatment for cancer and was in remission, and it was her profound wish that we would maintain as normal a life as we possibly could.”

Three years later, in July 2010, Caroline died from the disease at the age of 43.

The Helmand operation was as tough as Jarvis had expected. Vetting the Afghans was hazardous: the British soldiers never knew if people were coming forward for the right reasons. The “green on blue” attacks by Afghan forces on allied troops were just beginning. Jarvis also had to balance the military objectives with his desire to bring back all of his troops.

During the assignment, one Afghan soldier was killed and several others were injured. Some of Jarvis’s own men were badly hurt. But none died, which makes him immensely proud. “Those were formative times for me, frankly compounded by the constant self-doubt as to whether I should have been in that country,” says Jarvis, now a shadow justice minister. “It gives me perspective that I draw upon because, how ever tough things can be in politics, nothing will compare to that level of pressure and risk.”

In Jarvis’s constituency office at Barnsley Town Hall his staff joke about his fondness for military acronyms and mottos. When he writes RPE on a memo it means “relentless pursuit of excellence”. R&R is “ruthless and relentless”. “Ruthless with time,” Jason Keen, his press officer, clarifies.

I’ve arranged to meet Jarvis for a run at 8am on a late February morning. At 7.50am he is waiting outside the Premier Inn in the centre of Barnsley. “I thought we’d go out for an hour or so, a steady run,” he says. “One thing I must tell you is that it is hilly around here.”

Jarvis is training for the London Marathon, as I am. Or at least he should be. It’s only nine weeks to go until the race and he has managed a total of two practice runs. With the event due to take place just a fortnight before the general election, he would have been happy to skip it.

But since Caroline’s death, Jarvis has twice run the marathon for Cancer Research UK and it is the headline charity this year. Matching his time from 2014 will be hard, he says – he ran with his father and finished in three hours and 45 minutes – though he has no trouble answering questions as we run up a steep gradient. “You do 15 years in the Paras and you develop a bit of a mindset of getting tough at experiences,” he says. “There comes a point when the embarrassment of failure is much worse than the pain associated with trying to avoid failure.”

His lack of preparation is not laziness; he has little spare time. From Monday morning to Thursday night he is London, where he likes to be at his computer by 6am and finishes around midnight. Friday is a full day of constituency work in Barnsley and so is half of Saturday.

“I remember on my first day in the House of Commons [7 March 2011] a Conservative MP said to me: ‘The thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.’ I was pretty stunned to hear that and it’s completely not the case. You can potter around and do it as a part-time job if you want, but to do it effectively requires a huge amount of effort. I think people deserve that. I am not making any comment about whether I am effective or not. I think people will see that I put the work in.” (Three days later the Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind is caught on a hidden camera saying he is “self-employed” and boasting about his free time.)

Jarvis arrived at Westminster as an outsider in both background and timing. He was not part of the Labour class of 2010 – he won his seat in Barnsley Central in 2011, replacing Eric Illsley, who had to stand down after being convicted of fraud for his part in the MPs’ expenses scandal. In doing so, Jarvis became the first person since the Second World War to resign a military commission to contest a by-election. Since then, his rise through the ranks – and in his standing among his peers on both sides of the House – has been swift.

Jarvis did not want to be typecast and so deliberately avoided being pushed towards defence and security. But he was eager to be challenged. After six months he agreed to become shadow arts minister, even though he says he knew little about culture. In parliament he drew attention for his robust defence of local libraries against the coalition cuts, and for championing the National Health Service, describing the excellent care his wife had received.

Jarvis is affable, relaxed and the same time deeply serious about his job as an MP and the concept of public service. Some things he professes to doing – such as a ritual pause to consider his constituents every time he steps into the Commons – could sound ridiculous, yet from him they feel sincere. “He comes across as a very real, authentic person, and that’s important in modern politics,” as Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP, writer and chair of the Commons defence select committee, who has worked with Jarvis in parliament, told me.

His value to his party is clear. Last year Jarvis edited a book called Why Vote Labour, part of a series explaining the main parties’ policies. And few Labour MPs can have knocked on as many doors as he has done in recent months. In January, he spent nine days touring 27 constituencies to assist the local candidates. It was a strong statement of loyalty and perhaps of ambition, too.

Writing at the time in the Telegraph, James Kirkup, the paper’s executive editor for politics, again noted the Tories’ respect for Jarvis and said he should be spoken of as serious leadership material. “How would the CCHQ attack machine approach a Labour leader who served his country in two wars? A man who is raising two children alone after losing his wife to cancer?”

The second line was incorrect: Jarvis remarried in 2013 to Rachel, a freelance graphic designer, and now has a third child. But the point was well made: Ladbrokes has Jarvis at 12/1 to be the next Labour leader, behind Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna. His ability to perform under extreme pressure may well be tested again before too long.

Military men are typically Tory supporters. The Conservatives have numerous MPs with army backgrounds, mostly with short periods of service. Labour has one – Jarvis – and with arguably the highest profile of all. (In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for military service, the only serving MP to achieve that honour during the Queen’s reign.)

Why did he choose Labour? It was not a sudden decision, he says. His parents were both Labour Party members; his father was a lecturer at a teacher training college in Nottingham and his mother a probation officer. They instilled in him the importance of public service. While still at school he came to the conclusion that he did not share Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain.

“The values of Labour are my values – the fundamental belief that collectively you achieve more together than you can alone,” he says. “The belief in the value of fairness, equality, the desire to stand up for the many, not just the few – giving representation to those without a voice.”

Jarvis became a member of the Labour Party while studying international politics at Aberystwyth University. By then he had already decided to become a soldier. Nobody in his family had served in the armed forces, so it was a “minor act of rebellion”, he says now. “I worked out early on that what you do for a job is an important part of your life. So do something you think is worthwhile and that gives you an opportunity to make a contribution.”

The army appealed to his sense of adventure. As one holiday approached at university, he and his younger brother, Rob, looked for something to do. “Some students went to Ibiza,” Jarvis says. “We went to K2” – the world’s second-highest mountain. Wearing their grandfather’s old tweed coats they made it up to 6,500 metres before accepting that they did not have the skills or equipment to climb higher. (Rob is now a professional mountain guide in Chamonix.)

After a year as a cadet at Sandhurst in 1997, Jarvis joined the Parachute Regiment. In Kosovo, he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the UN force there. When Jackson returned to England in 2000 Jarvis accompanied him. He met Caroline at Jackson’s home in Wiltshire, where she worked as the family chef. They married the following year.

It was in Afghanistan in 2005, while following the UK general election at the end of a tour, that he first seriously considered a career in parliament. “My wife had not yet been diagnosed with cancer. I concluded that at some point, probably years ahead, I’d want to ease out of the army and get more involved in politics. My wife’s death accelerated that process.”

He has said that telling his children that their mother had died was the most difficult thing he has done. “It’s been hard for them. The only kind of minor saving grace was the fact my kids were so young [seven and five]. The magnitude of it was not completely lost, but if they had been the age they are now it would have been harder.

“It’s just one of those dreadful situations that you find yourself in and you’ve got two options: you can come through it or you can sink. Sinking was never an option because I had two small kids who wanted to go back to school quite quickly.”

He knew he could not return to war zones. But he did not want a desk job in the army. He quietly applied to be Labour’s candidate in Islwyn, south Wales, in 2010 and made the shortlist. The following year, the Barnsley Central seat became vacant.

Dan Jarvis, photographed in Barnsley this month by Rick Pushinsky.

Jarvis thought he stood little chance. The town has a long history of coal mining and union ties; on our run, we passed the house owned by Arthur Scargill, who Jarvis says is now a recluse. Every local MP for the previous 70 years had been from Barnsley or nearby, and most had been miners. And Nottingham, where Jarvis is from, is still associated with miners who kept working during the great strike of the mid-1980s.

“The only thing in my favour was that my predecessor was going to prison and there was huge discontent with the political classes. As someone untouched by all that, with a proven track record of service, I thought maybe I could be considered.”

He won selection through hard work and luck; at one point in the hustings when he tied with another candidate, they drew lots to see who would proceed. The by-election was more of a formality, as Barnsley Central is a safe Labour seat. But Jarvis was determined to make a point. He code-named his campaign “Operation Honey Badger” – the animal looks cuddly but is known for its strength and ferocity – and knocked on several thousand doors. He won 61 per cent of the vote, compared to the 47 per cent that Illsey had polled for Labour a year earlier.

After his victory, Jarvis moved the family home from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Barnsley. “Some people [MPs] decide that they want to be based in London,” he says. “I wanted to be rooted here. The kids are very settled and love the town.”

Initially, his parents – now divorced and both remarried – and his in-laws helped look after the children. Now Rachel takes care of most of the parental duties. Jarvis’s 12-year-old son and ten-year-daughter attend local state schools. “A bit of me thinks that it is kind of selfish for me to do it [being an MP and spending so much time away from home] . . . But we make it work.”

He thinks his children are proud that he is a politician, although his son was more impressed when he was soldier. They will help him campaign closer to the election in May.

Jarvis says Barnsley still suffers from misconceptions, with many people assuming that it is a heavily industrialised urban area. The last of the coal pits closed decades ago and three-quarters of the borough is green belt. The M1 passes close to the town and the Peak District is nearby.

Yet there are challenges. Barnsley Central is the 132nd worst of Britain’s 650 constituencies for unemployment. Underemployment is also a problem, with people who want permanent work having to settle for zero-hours or other part-time contracts.

“A lot of people are really struggling at the moment, making hard choices. This talk of an economic recovery: it’s a very different climate in London from the rest of Britain. In swaths of the country people are worse off by every metric than they were in 2010.”

Yet the Tories lead when it comes to economic stewardship and Labour is considered less friendly – even unfriendly – to business. Why is this?

“It’s because there is an election!” Jarvis says. “There are some clever election strategists paid a lot of money to run us down. There’s an absolute recognition [by Labour] that the private sector is an important part of the economy and that we can encourage business people to create wealth.”

I ask him about Ed Miliband: why are his approval ratings so poor? Opposition leaders have it tough compared to prime ministers, who have the benefit of incumbency, he says. Before they became prime minister, Jarvis recalls, Tony Blair was called “Bambi” and David Cameron was mocked for hugging huskies and cycling to work with his chauffeur behind him.

“When I talk to people about Ed, they do see him as a decent, well-meaning politician. But there is constant scrutiny upon him. I am not going to blame it all on the media but I think there’s a basic unfairness in the way the media have covered him. My take on Ed Miliband is that he’s an incredibly bright, thoughtful, decent guy who is doing the job for the right reasons.”

It’s now late morning and Jarvis is in his campaign gear: blue suit, comfortable brown walking shoes and a black waterproof jacket. As we approach the main shopping district, one of his constituents grips his hand and says: “We will beat Farage.”

Ukip isn’t a strong threat in Barnsley Central but it is in other areas nearby, including Rotherham. Labour supporters and politicians are concerned. (Later, Jarvis tells me that although the online version of Why Vote Labour initially sold better than the Conservative, Lib Dem and Ukip titles, the Ukip book is now the biggest seller. “Not that I’m competitive,” he says.)

“I am not remotely complacent about Ukip. They have successfully tapped in to a broader discontent about politics and politicians,” he says. But he thinks that support for Ukip has peaked. “They don’t have the momentum that they had at the time of the EU elections” in May last year.

The main market is busy with shoppers. Jarvis stops to talk to two female police officers and asks if they are having a quiet morning. “We don’t say the Q word!” one of
them replies in mock anger. They talk about the problem of local shops offering “legal highs”, products containing chemical substances that produce similar effects to cocaine or cannabis but not covered by current misuse of drugs laws. Jarvis is working with the government to have them banned.

We eat lunch at an Italian family restaurant. Out of earshot of Jarvis, I ask the two young waitresses if their MP is representing them well. The first says yes; she recognised him when he walked in. The second has no idea who her representative at Westminster is, and is only humouring me with an answer. “She [sic] is doing a good job,” the waitress says.

Jarvis chuckles when I tell him. I ask him what has gone wrong. “Many people think that our problems have outgrown our politics,” he says. “They feel lost in this rapidly changing world. Globalisation offers many opportunities but many challenges as well. We’ve seen how an economic crisis that had its roots on the other side of the world has had a direct impact on the livelihoods of people in this country and in my constituency. Technological improvements mean there is not as much of a role for those previously unskilled opportunities, so that brings pressures and challenges.”

The “established political order” also bears blame, he says. “Far too many politicians would never dream of knocking on people’s doors to ask them what they think. In many of the heartlands, Conservative and Labour, people sat on these big majorities and didn’t need to put the work in. The public was something of an afterthought. This has led to a breakdown of trust.

“Some people will try to simplify it and say it’s the expenses scandal. But that’s a tiny part of all this. Over many years there’s been a gradual separation between the political establishment and the people that they are there to serve.”

If the public’s confidence is to be won back, parliament needs to change. There are too few working-class people, too few women and too many career politicians, he says. “The public wants more people with life experience.”

He mentions one of Barnsley’s best-known MPs, Roy Mason, who worked underground as a coal miner at 14 and went on to represent the town from 1953 to 1987. “I suspect what he did would be much harder to do now and it’s a question of social mobility. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: that kids who grow up here should have the same opportunities as those children in more affluent areas.”

I ask if he thinks what the New Statesman has called the 7 per cent problem – the domination of public life by a privately educated minority, as well as the correlation between poverty and educational failure – is also an issue at Westminster. “There is an over-representation of people [in parliament] who have been to public schools. That is a fact of life that we should seek to address.

“It’s not to say we have not got exceptional people who went to public schools who can do exceptional things. But we need a parliament that is truly representative of the public that it is there to serve.”

Like Jarvis, Rory Stewart – who made his name as a diplomat and author of books on Afghanistan and Iraq – entered parliament as a political novice, winning a seat in 2010. In an interview with the American magazine the New Republic last year, Stewart said: “It is difficult to work out what an MP is, what an MP does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be. Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”

When I ask Jarvis about it, he says, “I mean this in an entirely complimentary way – Rory tends to overthink things.”

He expands: “I am pretty clear what I am here to do. I am there to champion my constituents and make sure their voices are heard and to stand up for them. I think I have learned a bit about how you get things done and how parliament works.”

There are frustrations. One is a consequence of being in opposition and not being able to influence government policy. Another dislike is the “political pantomime” of Prime Minister’s Questions. “When I go round the schools I cannot justify that level of behaviour to kids who see it and ask me about it. Some people say it makes it more of a spectacle and fewer people would watch if it was not that sort of confrontational environment. I don’t really buy that.”

In a 2012 interview with the Spectator, Jarvis expressed admiration for David Miliband, describing his role as vice-chairman of the Blairite think tank Progress as evidence of him “seeing the importance of the centre ground”. When I ask him about this, he says he is also a member of Unison, Unite, the Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party. “In politics there are those who will always try to pigeonhole you. I have frustrated people by not allowing them to do that, and been very careful not to be linked with any one bit of the party.”

I ask what he thinks of David Cameron. “I have a huge amount of respect for the office of the PM and it’s the most incredibly difficult job. While [Cameron] has always been personally charming to me, I don’t know what he is about and what he stands for. He has never convinced me that he gets up in the morning filled with some ideological vigour to make the country a better place. With a number of that cohort, it’s about holding and wielding the influence and power of office for its own ends, rather than for the greater good.”

Does he aspire to be PM? He must be aware of the talk of him as a future Labour leader? He pauses. “I don’t spend much time thinking about that, to be honest. I am utterly focused on winning the election and that Ed will be prime minister. The consequences of not doing so are severe for this country. It is said of Michael Heseltine that from school he had this grand plan that he was going to do a bit of time in the army, make money in business, go into politics, go into the cabinet and be prime minister. I am always suspicious of those sorts of people. I just want to do the best job that I can.”

With a close election predicted, one might have thought that Labour would be exploring the possibility of an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Jarvis rejects this. “We need to do everything we can to avoid the scenario of going in with the Lib Dems. Our focus is on beating them, not war-gaming on a scenario that may or may not come.”

After lunch, Jarvis’s office manager drives us to Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency. Polls show that the Labour candidate here, Oliver Coppard, is within a few percentage points of defeating Clegg. Coppard and a dozen volunteers are gathered at Crookes Social Club and when Jarvis arrives they fan out into the surrounding streets to campaign. Few people are at home. “It can be a bit soul-destroying, knocking on 15 doors when there’s nobody in,” Jarvis says.

When someone does answer, he introduces himself as a Labour member campaigning for Coppard. He only lets on that he is an MP when called over to chat to a woman who wants to join the party. He asks her why. “Ukip is getting more powerful and I find that really worrying,” she says. “The only good thing is that it is getting people angry and doing things.”

After 90 minutes, it’s time to go. Jarvis is dropped off at Sheffield Station and rushes to buy a ticket before boarding a crowded train to Barnsley. His monthly meeting with local Labour Party members begins at 5pm in the town hall. Though he will be late, he will not cancel; he has missed only two of these Friday-evening meetings in four years – once to get married and once to appear on Any Questions. In the morning he will be back on Barnsley’s streets, knocking on doors. “The honey badger,” he said on the way to the station, “lives on.” 

Xan Rice is features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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