Folk memories of ancient battles are still a crucial element of Serbian national identity. Photograph: Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum
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The Belgrade train

A journey to the troubled heart of the Balkans.

At Cortanovci in November, the Belgrade train enters the wet woodland of the Danube shore. Egrets stand at ease by poplars. Warblers scatter as the train passes. This Serbian district of hills and orchards is known as the Fruška Gora, or “fruitful hills”. It is also a national park, though there’s nothing at Cortanovci to announce the fact. I’ve glimpsed the crossing-keeper only once in all the years I’ve taken the train: a woman in a stripy headscarf, she sat on a plastic chair in the sunlight among chickens and buckets, knitting.

The express trains no longer stop here, but if you follow the woodland track downhill from the platform you come across traces of an old beauty spot. A stream flows over stones that have been patched together like home-made cobbles. Old man’s beard loops between the trees. Near the water, signs of human activity appear: here a pile of firewood, there a hut made from branches and parts of an old car. Moss has climbed the car-door windows like a stain. On the bank, overgrown concrete plinths suggest the cafés that used to line the shore. Only one remains. Inside its cabin, a portable TV blinks from a high bracket. You can sit on the remains of a terrace and drink a brown sludge of coffee, probably made with river water.

The proprietor smokes at a polite distance. For once, in this talkative country, there’s nothing to say. The river holds his attention and yours. Sleek tenant of some of the most contested land in Europe, the Danube is not Serbian, any more than it is Austrian or Slovak or Romanian. Here it is a working waterway, navigable by immense barges loaded with shipping containers. They glide past, engines chuntering. Deliveries from downriver and even the Black Sea head for the industrial quarter of Novi Sad, inconceivable among the trees of this riverbank but no more than 20 kilometres upstream.

The Macedonian novelist and essayist Aleksandar – Sasha – Prokopiev and I found ourselves drinking coffee in the quiet of Cortanovacka Obala one evening in September 2001. We had escaped from a conference being held by the new, post-nationalist new Serbian Writers’ Association in a former local government holiday villa on the scarp above us. Elsewhere the western world convulsed and panicked. Here the late air was muggy under the trees, bright over the water. Clouds of midges caught the light. After a while, two young guys appeared, carrying an assortment of rods and tools. They had a couple of big fish each: carp, probably, or the bottom-feeding fleshy fish the people in these parts call cpaπ. Before we saw them we heard them, calling their dogs: Ide Goran, ide Zoran. The moment they noticed us they started hustling: beautiful fish, you can eat them here. They were dressed in the odds and ends the poor wear everywhere. One had an old shirt and trousers coloured with oil, the other was in a T-shirt and Chelsea strip tracksuit bottoms. They stared at us cheerfully, even as we declined in a fluster of excuses. Finally, Zivot, good health, they shouted like a kind of shrug, parting, and Zivoti, Sasha answered, bouncing a little in his seat and raising his cup.

I found myself wondering what they had done in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s: they must have been in their twenties already by the time the conflict ended, and it’s the poor and uneducated everywhere who are first recruited to fight. Often, here, I’m grateful for the way people keep what they’ve seen unspoken; yet those secrets are frightening just because they exist. This is true even of the people I’m closest to. I couldn’t, for instance, mention my unease to Sasha. That evening his country (its official name, at Greek insistence, is now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or “Fyrom”) was still at war. It was something he couldn’t bear to speak about. As in its north-westerly neighbour Kosovo, a fault line had been reopened between the mainly Orthodox Christian, ethnic Slav population and the indigenous Muslim communities, known as Albanians, largely concentrated then, as today, in the region close to Kosovo and Albania. Even as I thought about this, the evening news on the café TV switched to pictures of his home town: the capital, Skopje, in its river basin ringed by mountains, among them the highlands around Tetovo, scene of one of the last offensives of the war. Sasha smiled and shook his head and looked away.

The fishermen were archetypes, doing what countrymen have done everywhere through the centuries. They could have been taken from the foreground of some 18th-century engraving. The Fruška Gora is a habitable idyll, the kind of landscape that humans have imagined in their search for paradise since before the Torah became the Bible. Eden, after all, was an orchard. But this evening its beauty was a kind of con. The overgrown waterfront made it clear that no one was holidaying in paradise. The tapping and knocking sounds of building in the orchards behind us was a sign not of prosperity, but unemployment. Local people were out of work not only due to the loss of tourist income, but because of Nato’s bombing of local industrial plants and the disappearance of a pan-Yugoslav market for Novi Sad’s manufactured goods. Men were fixing up their houses because there was nothing else to do – and because there were refugees to be accommodated.

For Serbs, the war had ended only two years earlier; their dictator Slobodan Milosevic had been gone for less than a year. The beautiful river we sat by, the water table that feeds the Fruška Gora’s orchards, had been polluted by the depleted uranium Nato used in its bombs. The fishermen’s catch, the fruit, even the water in our coffee could have been conta minated. Who knows? Perhaps it was here and now, on this peaceful evening by the Danube, that Sasha ingested, and I did not, the trace of contamination that would lodge in his thyroid and flower as tumours around his face and neck in the decade to come.

“It has been estimated that one-millionth of a gram accumulation in a person’s body would be fatal. There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty” – this according to a memo written on 30 October 1943 by physicists working on the US nuclear project. Since Nato’s bombing campaign, leukaemia rates among newborn babies in the former Yugoslavia are said to have risen from one per 1,000 to between ten and 15 per 1,000. Recently Sasha told me, once again evading my eyes, about an epidemic of men with prostate and thyroid cancers in Skopje. Even his friend Mickey the mafioso, with whom we danced and drank at Sveti Naum one August Sunday, has gone into the clinic Sasha knows too well, and never come out.

Now the railway line breaks out of the woods and on to the rolling plain of the Banat, the breadbasket of the Balkans. The last of the Fruška Gora is a bald arable ridge sinking into the great level that most characterises Vojvodina, this ethnically mixed northern region of Serbia. It makes a fine contour, subtle and sensuous like the landscapes painted between the world wars by Sava Šumanovic, a Serb artist from nearby Šid, murdered in 1942. I keep a postcard of Šumanovic’s Autumn Viewon my desk, and its cream and gold remind me of the time we visited the little Austro-Hungarian border town, really more of a village. It was in Šid’s Art Klub, over another coffee, that Nenad Velickovic – novelist, youth worker and an ethnic Serb who remained to endure the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996 – lectured me on the presumption of the foreign NGOs that had flooded into his home town: the outsider never truly understands.

The first time I travelled across the Banat, just after the fall of Milosevic in October 2000, the whiteness stretching on all sides dazzled me. This was my first encounter with the openness of the south-east European plain. It’s Pannonia, the site of a huge lost inland sea, Raša, a translator for the UN peacekeeping forces, told me, lifting a hand from the steering wheel to gesture. Pannonia, he explained, stretches from Vienna to Belgrade and from Zagreb to the north-western corner of Romania, and though centred on the Hungarian steppes it encompasses Vojvodina, central Croatia, western Transylvania and corners of several other countries where they fall between the mountain ranges of the Alps, the Carpathians, the Adriatic Dinarides and the Balkan Mountains in the east.

Raša’s wool collar was stylishly turned up; an expensive scarf covered his chin. Yet despite his smart white four-wheel drive with its UNHCR number plates he was a typical Yugoslav mixture, with a Serb surname, a Muslim first name and, as I was discovering, a very Balkan fatalism. We were speeding north from Skopje to Novi Sad along the most inappropriate motorway I have ever travelled. Single-track in each direction, it had a single, shared central overtaking lane: the worst kind of temptation for drivers of a nation renowned for machismo, and which had recently lost a war. Everyone played chicken. Cars raced towards us, and we towards them, until disaster seemed inevitable – averted only by some sudden swerve.

Apparently unconcerned, Raša continued to explain the identity of this central Balkan region. If Vojvodina is a breadbasket, its handles are gripped by Hungary in the north, Romania in the east, the Serbian capital to the south – and Croatia to the west. That northwestern border between Serbia and Croatia around Vukovar suffered the worst of the conflict between those countries in 1991; yet Vojvodina, and the fertile plain of the Banat in particular, is historically anti-nationalist, a region proud of its ethnic diversity.

In 2002, there were still a quarter of a million Hungarians here and at least three million people from other minority groups: Slovaks, Croats, Montenegrins, Romanians and Roma, but also Bunjevci, Germans, Slovenes and Muslims. The regional capital, the liberal university town of Novi Sad, was known for its desire to distance itself from Milosevic; but later in the war the bombing of its bridges and factories hardened local anti-western feeling.

At the southern tip of the Banat, beyond Nova Pazova, the proximity of the capital announces itself with a strip development of new villas, built in red clay breeze blocks. But who would settle here, in one of these tall new houses, their small grassed yards unfit for the village fruit, flowers and chickens? Without shops, without the comfort of longterm neighbours, this is no village, but an echo of city life in the middle of nowhere.

In its own way it represents a more radical social reconfiguration than the tower blocks of the communist era; and it has become home to those who live nowhere. The builders and owners of these houses are the uprooted, the transplanted: the diasporans who come back each summer and dream of returning for good. A man leans his belly on a balcony rail to watch us pass. Between him and the railway line is dusty common land, full of weeds and criss-crossed with tracks. A goat pulls on a long tether. A ditch is clogged with rusting cars, fridges and bin bags of detritus.

The every-man-for-himself straggle of Nova Pazova is nothing like the planned, communist-era new town of Novi Beograd, where the train soon pulls up at a concrete platform of unmistakably 1970s design. New Belgrade’s bug-eyed concrete tower blocks are the symbols of this dormitory district, built across the river from the old capital. It’s densely populated, and a stop here takes time and is full of noise and emotion. The dreamlike sensation of a long journey is over. Families are reunited. The unfeasible baggage of returnees – huge suitcases, crates and sacks – is unloaded, a cue for shouts and laughter. Meanwhile a couple of youths with gelled hair and sharp jackets, up for a night in town, slip into the seats behind you. No one’s going to check their tickets now.

Finally the train begins to move. The platform slides away. You look down on to the Roma settlement that occupies the wasteland beneath the viaduct. This isn’t a couple of caravans and a van parked up in the English style. Instead, streets of shacks have been put together from the materials that shackbuilders everywhere have to hand: plywood, corrugated iron, cardboard, branches, tarpaulin and rags. To the western eye it looks like apartheid. Shouldn’t Roma people live clean, comfortable lives as they keep their culture and freedom of movement? But no state is going to look after them as well as it does its taxpaying voters. The shanty town signals impasse: the failure of utilitarian solutions to address minority needs.

There have been Roma in Serbia since at least the 14th century. They were here before the Turks, who named and rebuilt the great fortress that dominates the Belgrade city scarp. Kalemegdan stands above the confluence of the Danube and the Sava, the river the train must cross to arrive in the capital. Wide brick walls, fortified with turrets, loop around the edge of a rock and face most impressively east and north, towards us. Like the fortress at Petrovaradin, upstream in Novi Sad, Kalemegdan secured the river routes that helped the administration and prosperity of the Habsburg empire. Now its castle walls enclose lawns, trees and kiosks where you can buy cola and pumpkin seeds and sometimes, for your girl or a child, a keyring with a fluffy toy attached. Old men play chess on park benches, ringed by bystanders. And lovers, of whom Belgrade always has plenty, occupy the seats in the shadiest corners, or sit together on the broken walls. When the wind carries, you can hear the zoo animals yowling at the eastern end of the park.

At Belgrade, the Danube is enormous, easily incorporating the thickly wooded Great War Island that floats just below the citadel. But it is chiefly the Sava that Belgraders proper live on and with. Wider here at its final point than the Thames is at Westminster Bridge, or the Danube under the Chain Bridge in Budapest, the Sava is a Yugoslav river. Named for Saint Sava, the princely archbishop who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church and drafted the first Serbian constitution in 1219, it starts as a racing, turquoise stream in the Julian Alps of Slovenia. After passing through Ljubljana and then Zagreb, it serves as the border between Croatia and Bosnia for 200 kilometres until it reaches Sremska Mitrovica, the town whose prison was appropriated by the Serbian army during the wars of the 1990s.

In her third-floor apartment on a corner block near the Belgrade mouth of the Sava, Marianne, a literary translator who had married into the life of the city, once gave me a glimpse of the kind of bourgeois good life envisioned by the 1930s architect of her block. Her flat was all oak and glass, a circlet of rooms that opened into each other and, repeatedly, on to views of the street and river. Although the original fittings and the bigblocked parquet floors were looking a little tired, the flat continued to model the good life, its interlocking rooms suggesting the interlocking dialogue of family life.

Further west, though, the riverbank ceases to be residential and becomes utilitarian. Here, a train arriving from the south must shunt through a series of sidings below the city rock. Warehouses turn anonymous gable-ends to the tracks where workers amble. Sleepingcars are parked up seemingly at random; curtains flap at their open windows. Beyond lie the trade fair grounds, then suburbs that quickly turn away from the river, leaving its banks to birds and fishermen.

The Sava is also where the pleasure-barges anchor. Nightclubs, restaurants, brothels – in the years after communism they were powered by mafia money and turbo-folk. The aesthetic is bling and glitz; girls with straining corsets, huge eyelashes, fake tans, and enormous voices. Turbo-folk has great tunes (it is derived from folk material, after all), great emotion and a limited palette of topics: lament, passion, nationalist longing. It makes the folk-rock giants of the British 1970s look like mincing antiquarians. Turbofolk isn’t exactly dumbed down – the emotion it works up can be almost complex, at times genuinely sweet-and-sour – but it is amped up. It’s music for drunken parties, music to make the room sway and young women pump their right arm in the air, first finger extended, as they mark the sweet spots where, deliberately breaking her voice, the singer maxes out the emotion.

Turbo-folk is playing at every wedding party you stumble upon. It’s what binds the room together when everyone is already sodden with sentiment and slivovitz. It is grandiose and unsubtle, and a quarter-century ago you could have enjoyed or ironised the vulgar sentiment and thought no more about it. But in the wars of the 1990s the music became nationalist ammunition. The new aristocracy of the time were the mafia warlords and their turbo-folk molls.

Early 1995 brought the marriage of the most famous couple from that world, the mafia warlord Arkan (real name: Željko Ražnatovic) and the turbo-folk star Ceca. Arkan, who had graduated from organised crime and football hooliganism – he was the leader of Red Star Belgrade’s notorious followers, the Delije – wore a faux-military costume. Five years later he was dead, murdered in the lobby of Belgrade’s InterContinental Hotel. Two years after that, when I stayed in the less glittering Hotel Taš, there was still a “No Firearms” sign over the door of the breakfast room, which served nightly as a casino; but the morning eggs were irreproachable. The wars, and their turbo-folk soundtrack, had a tremendous kitsch momentum, although it’s disgusting to use this term in relation to the horrors inflicted on the civilian populations of former Yugoslavia. Still, both violence and music showed detached, postmodern Europe the potency of the lowest common denominator: what happens when thousands surrender their individual judgement to vulgarised emotion.

Balkan folk songs have form as a repository of warlike memory. Perhaps the bestknown of all is “The Field of Blackbirds”, which turns a story of defeat by the Ottoman imperial forces at Kosovo Polje in 1389 into a call to arms for Serbian nationalism. An oral peasant culture, such as still survives in the Balkan countryside, is a fertile context for the transmission of history and ideas through ballad and song. This is not so different from “When Adam Delved and Eve Span”, which we’ve inherited from our 14th-century Peasants’ Revolt, or the protest ballads sung by the wives of striking miners in the 1980s.

The difference, however, lies in the degree of surrender of better judgement, of individual responsibility, that turbo-folk evokes. “History is now and England,” T S Eliot wrote, though we don’t believe him. Turbofolk singers urge us to believe that history is now and Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo. They position the listener inside the song, telling him that he is part of the story it narrates. They do this through both the words and the music, which doesn’t settle for being tuneful, or even good to dance to. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of it as something akin to soul music: a mix of the evocative national pull of folk music, the “belonging” repertory of regimental or Northern Irish marching bands and the meaningful tug of gospel. It’s music to make a lump rise in your throat against your better judgement.

Yet Belgrade also has a vibrant countertradition. Radio B92, still broadcasting today, confirmed its anti-nationalist stance during the war years not only through its news and commentary but by broadcasting western pop and rock music. In a way that got lost in the west in the 1970s, such music remains politicised here as the sound of idealism and rebellion. There is also a history of indigenous rock as critique. In the 1980s, Idoli, a Belgrade new-wave band with members from across Yugoslavia, issued songs of sardonic social commentary. In 1980 their “Retko te viðam sa devojkama” (“I rarely see you with girls”) was a pioneering gay statement in mainstream culture.

During the war years, B92 playlists moved from Prince and REM to Tricky and Super Furry Animals. Later, the radio station felt a responsibility to sanitise folk music because of the role turbo-folk had played in the war. It did so in part by issuing Srbija: Sounds Global compilations, featuring indisputably ethnographic artists.

The Belgrade train grinds across the steel railway bridge above pleasureboats still moored on either side of the Sava. Squint to the right along the northern bank and you can see a bare patch of ground, something like a building site, where the headquarters of Mirjana Markovic’s JUL party, the old communist left, was destroyed by a Nato bomb in 1999. At the time Markovic, who is still involved in Serbian politics today, was married to Slobodan Milosevic. Nato also bombed RTS, the city’s equivalent of Broadcasting House, as well as a large, army-run building out on the Pancevo road, which turned out to be not a military headquarters, but a hospital. For more than a dozen years, the ruins have been left exposed to the weather as a huge, open-air protest.

As the train arrives on the east bank of the Sava, the White City is grey with dust and petrol fumes, and dusk is settling over the scarp. Soon, it will be too dark to see the remarkable Jugendstil buildings downtown, the Austro-Hungarian villas of the embassy district, or of Knez Mihailova. On that wide pedestrian boulevard the Roma kids will be packing away their fiddles and money caps; suited men will be filling the tables of Snežana: Srpski restoran; and where the American Cultural Centre used to be before it was torched, girls in skintight jeans with tousled hair will scream with laughter down the cement arcade.

At the southern end of Knez Mihailova, where it meets the roaring traffic of the arterial Terazije, stands Hotel Moskva, the best in the city, its newly renovated green tiled roof and gilded art nouveau wall panels gleaming. The Moscow’s marble tearoom becomes a piano bar in the evenings, but the menu never changes. If you don’t want to drink you can still have a thimbleful of thick coffee and a not-quite-fully-thawed cream cake.

Below the hotel the city tips downwards, back to the Sava. Facing it is the Hotel Balkan, where in 1996 the Hungarian writer Péter Zilahy, then a young rebel taking part in the failed anti-Milosevic uprising, photographed government troops waiting under the hotel sign, symbol of the collapse of regional hospitality. Below the Balkan and the Moskva, Balkanska – Balkan Street – winds down to the railway station. You can probably see me there, toiling uphill.

Here’s the stop for the night bus to Skopje. Here’s the small leather-goods shop where I bought a most useful belt. The baklava shop. “Zlater” on the jewellers’ fascia board. The internet café. And ahead of me, huddled on its eccentric corner site, is the Hotel Prag, our usual place.  

Fiona Sampson is a poet. Her latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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