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Between twin barbarisms

After six years of war, Syria’s moderate rebels are broken and marginalised. And now, as Bashar al-Assad has wished for so long, al-Qaeda extremists are leading the insurgency.

On 9 February, a grey-bearded and balding Syrian rebel commander wearing military dress appeared in an internet video calling for greater unity among the forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad. This was unremarkable. Syria’s rebel groups frequently issue unity statements, merge units and create umbrella groups – many of which, like the fruit of the medlar tree, turn rotten before they turn ripe.

Yet the message from Hashem al-Sheikh – a native of Aleppo imprisoned by Assad in 2005 for his jihadi beliefs and then released along with other Islamist prisoners in 2011 in an attempt to poison the nascent uprising against the regime – was hugely important in the context of the Syrian Civil War: it signalled the potential subsuming of the entire Syrian opposition to radical and reactionary forces, and to al-Qaeda in particular.

In the video, Hashem al-Sheikh announ­ced the creation of a powerful, extremist-dominated entity known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the “Committee for the Liberation of the Levant”.

One of the main groups that joined the new committee is Nur al-Din al-Zenki, a corrupt and brutal Islamist movement that was once backed by the CIA as a “vetted organisation”, though this designation was later revoked. In July last year, five months before Aleppo fell to Assad’s forces, the group’s members were filmed beheading Abdullah Tayseer in the eastern part of the city. Tayseer was a 13-year-old boy whom they accused of fighting for the regime.

Far more significant was the folding into HTS of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), which until July was known as Jabhat al-Nusrah – and which represented al-Qaeda on the ground in Syria. JFS, comprised mainly of local fighters, had earned a degree of popular support among civilians because of its fighters’ valour and lack of corruption. The rebranding was an attempt by its leaders to recast it as a broader part of the overall uprising, and to capitalise on ordinary Syrians’ hatred of Islamic State (IS), which is widely seen as having usurped the revolution and diverted its aims.

Consequently, al-Qaeda has pursued an audacious line of messaging that seeks to portray the group in Syria as a responsible actor that follows a “middle path” between acquiescence and extremism. The corollary is clear: that it is both authentic and organic. “JFS is not a fringe group that exists on another planet,” wrote a spokesman, Mos­tafa Mahamed, shortly after it rebranded in 2016. “It is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people.”

The creation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is a further coup for al-Qaeda in its quest for legitimacy within the Syrian opposition. Because Hashem al-Sheikh, the HTS leader, has never been part of JFS, the group can more credibly intertwine itself within the much wider movement. Indeed, Sheikh declared that HTS is not an umbrella organisation, and neither does it represent the continuation of any particular fighting force. It is a merger that dissolves the individual identities of its constituents, bringing them together in a wholly new entity.

Even so, its messages bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda. Sheikh’s first speech as leader was deeply sectarian; he declared Shias “the enemy”, cursed Alawites (the heterodox sect to which Assad belongs) and called for hostilities against the “forces of Zoroastrianism” (used in this context as a pejorative reference to Iran).

The elevation of Hashem al-Sheikh also throws a spotlight on the tensions within Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful and well-armed of all the anti-Assad forces. Despite holding various extremist beliefs, the Islamist group has been influential and prominent within the Syrian uprising. Sheikh was one of the founding members of Ahrar al-Sham and, until his defection last month, one of its leaders.

Ahrar al-Sham is now split into two factions – those who favour greater pragmatism (and, along with this, compromise and moderation) and those who are doggedly doctrinaire. It faces other challenges, too, because HTS has adopted an aggressive posture towards rival anti-Assad forces. In recent weeks its fighters, targeting the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham and other units, have sought to consolidate control over the entire province of Idlib in north-western Syria, near the border with Turkey. This is the most significant rebel redoubt in the country after the fall of Aleppo.

“Al-Qaeda is eating us,” an official with the US-backed moderate rebel group Fastaqim told the Washington Post last month, explaining why his fighters had joined an alliance with Ahrar al-Sham despite its more hardline views.

The consolidation among the rebel groups, and the drift towards greater extremism, stem directly from what happened in Aleppo late last year before it was finally reclaimed by Assad’s army. When regime fighters, aided by Iranian-backed militias and Russian troops, managed to encircle and besiege eastern Aleppo, Assad enacted an already tried and tested policy: submit or starve. For months, hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped inside the city survived on dwindling supplies while Syrian and Russian warplanes dropped barrel bombs and bunker busters capable of ­destroying underground medical facilities.

So great was the suffering that, when the regime made its final push on Aleppo just before Christmas, rebel pockets crumbled much faster than anyone had predicted. After an evacuation deal was agreed, tens of thousands of civilians moved into the rebel-held Idlib, to the west. A minority went to regime-controlled parts of Aleppo.

The shifting dynamics of the war present a significant challenge for Syria’s beleaguered and dwindling revolutionaries, who find themselves caught between the twin barbarisms of Assad and the jihadist groups. Although there remains an alphabet soup of groups operating in Syria, few have any significance. In Idlib, the only groups realistically capable of commanding authority or administering rebel-held territory were JFS and Ahrar al-Sham. With the latter in free fall, it seems that the spoils will go exclusively to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

This marks a dangerous pivot in the Syrian Revolution. The pragmatic aspects of the opposition are being overtaken by a bullish and avowedly jihadist movement that is not only dogmatic in its approach to scripture, but also not prepared to abide minorities. The ascendency of HTS heralds an end for the opposition’s backers in both the West and the Gulf, who will shy away from supporting an alliance that so brazenly incorporates a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Already, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have suspended support to moderate rebel groups, fearing that supplies will fall into the hands of extremists.

“There is now a strong likelihood that [this] will be remembered as the moment when Western and Arab states turned away from the Syrian opposition, sealing its  fate,” Aron Lund, a fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University, noted recently.

 

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The extremist hijacking of the rebellion is precisely what Assad wanted. For years he tried to portray everyone opposed to his regime as a terrorist, arguing that they were inspired first by the Muslim Brotherhood and then by al-Qaeda and IS.

It was a deft move. When the protests began in 2011 as a principally secular and student-led movement, Syria’s Ba’athists faced an existential threat. As had occurred elsewhere in the Arab world, the international community was on the side of the revolutionaries. The Assad regime had to find a way to make the opposition unacceptable to the West. Over a long period and after much suffering, it has succeeded in achieving precisely that, by peeling progressives away from the opposition and fomenting the jihadist threat within.

Radical groups are now consuming those that have otherwise evaded the regime, a number that grows smaller by the day.

A report published last month by Amnesty International describes the methodical extermination campaign waged by Assad against peaceful activists detained in his most disreputable prison – Sednaya, where Sheikh was once held. The report documents how up to 13,000 people were hanged in the prison between 2011 and 2015, usually after severe beatings and torture.

“The victims are overwhelmingly civilians who are thought to oppose the government,” the Amnesty report states. “Since 2011, thousands of people have been executed in mass hangings, carried out at night and in the utmost secrecy.”

The executions are believed to happen in groups of 50 at a time. It is thought that a further ten prisoners die every day under torture, or from the squalid conditions ­inside Sednaya, including malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of medical care.

Assad’s destruction of the civilian component from the opposition has, perversely, helped his standing in the international community. He is now able to cast himself as the last guarantor of Syria’s delicate and secular social palimpsest, a particular contrast to the millenarian mania of Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

The full extent of his rehabilitation became apparent last month when the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, signalled a potential change in UK government policy while giving evidence to the House of Lords select committee on international relations.

“It is our view that Bashar al-Assad should go. It’s been our long-standing position. But we are open-minded about how that happens and the timescale on which that happens,” Johnson said. This included an acceptance that Assad should be allowed to run for the presidency again. The statement marked a dramatic shift in British policy towards the conflict since it first began. “I have to be realistic about how the landscape has changed,” Johnson said.

Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly of his fears about the terrorist threat emanating from Syria: he wants to confront extremists operating in the ravaged country. Against this backdrop, it is easy for Assad to present himself as a beleaguered, secular president fighting a jihadist insurgency.

Since winning back control of Aleppo in December, Assad has seemed more emboldened than at any other point in this long conflict. The regime is concentrating its efforts nearer to Damascus. A five-week bombardment allowed the regime to retake Wadi Barada, a highly strategic area about ten miles north-east of Damascus that is one of the capital’s sources of water, in late January. Assad is now focusing on Ghouta, another district near the capital, where the regime’s forces are alleged to be using chlorine bombs as chemical weapons against the besieged population.

Given the recent military gains, can ­Assad achieve his stated aim of restoring government control over the whole of Syria? That remains an altogether more challenging and ambitious task, not least in the east, where IS remains strong.

Though it is tempting to believe reports that IS is in terminal decline, this belies the facts. The group is under pressure in Iraq and is losing territory in Mosul, its main stronghold in the neighbouring country. It is likely that Iraqi forces will eventually recover all their territory, driving IS back into its Syrian redoubts.

But the social and political dynamics in Iraq are different from those in Syria, where IS is not only more entrenched but is facing a weaker, less cohesive adversary. Assad is already stretched and fighting on multiple fronts. He cannot afford to divert significant forces to fighting Islamic State, nor is he inclined to do so. Indeed, he is now almost entirely dependent on external support. Not only did he require Russian assistance in Aleppo, but there was much broader support from Shia militias such as Hezbollah, as well as elite Iranian forces. Whereas Russia’s involvement has diminished since Aleppo was recaptured, the Iranians are now far more heavily invested – emotionally and religiously – in the conflict. Within days of Aleppo falling, one of Iran’s most senior army commanders, General Qasem Soleimani, was pictured in the city.

By contrast, Assad is yet to visit. His chief priority remains the capture and control of what has been termed “useful Syria”, the spine of economically important cities and towns running along the western frontier from Deraa, near the border with Jordan, all the way up to Aleppo.

While Kurdish troops have made gains against Islamic State in Syria, they lack the firepower and resources needed to overcome the group decisively. Given the Turkish government’s immutable opposition to empowering Kurdish forces, this is unlikely to change. And IS has demonstrated its resilience and capacity to adapt.

It is sometimes easiest to think of the various moving parts of the Syrian conflict as the air inside a balloon: squeeze one part, and you merely move the air elsewhere. Although Russian and Syrian forces were successful in retaking the historic city of Palmyra last year, once they turned their attention towards Aleppo IS returned. Its destruction of Palmyra’s cultural heritage was more intense during the second occupation than when it previously controlled the city. (Syrian soldiers and their allies recaptured Palmyra a second time early this month.) Yet IS has also made smaller gains in other areas, such as the eastern province of Deir az-Zour, where its fighters pushed through regime lines and encircled a military airbase.

These are ominous lessons for military planners in Damascus, suggesting that the residual influence of groups such as Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will continue to resonate for years to come.

The fall of Aleppo may well have marked a turning point in the Syrian conflict – but only towards a more draconian and jihadi-led armed opposition.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer, a member of the department of war studies at King’s College London and the author of “Salafi-Jihadism: the History of an Idea” (C Hurst & Co)

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 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition