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Assad's battlefield wins seem to be an illusion of security

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Arnab Neil Sengupta :
European diplomats have made it clear to the Russians and Assad that no EU reconstruction money will be forthcoming in the absence of an agreed-upon political transition.
Just when the world was wondering if the worst was over in Syria's civil war, came a shocking reminder of the scope for further barbarism in the form of a coordinated assault by Daesh, which killed more than 200 people in the country's southwest.
President Bashar Al Assad's forces and allied fighters are trying as hard as they can to convince the world that their air and ground campaign is aimed at restoring stability to areas over which "terrorist organisations" hold sway.
But as the July 25 attacks on Suwayda city and nearby villages in the Jebel al-Arab area demonstrate, what the regime has been able to establish so far is merely an illusion of security, to say nothing of stability. The massacre of 142 civilians and the abduction of dozens of women from the predominantly Druze area by the Daesh fighters is a tragic reminder that defeating rebels in scattered battles is not necessarily the same as winning the war.
Arrogance engendered by its military success may be spurring the Assad regime on to pave the way unwittingly for a comeback by the most violent elements of the armed opposition at a time civilians lack protection in large parts of Syria.Thus, now is as good a time as any for Western powers and their Arab allies at the UN to intensify their efforts to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to show some tough love towards Assad.
Admittedly, Russia has hardly been waging a clean war itself on Assad's behalf, carrying out indiscriminate air attacks against rebel-held areas that are killing women and children and pulverising homes and infrastructure, thus alienating the civilian population.
Still, lessons of the deadly insurgency that the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan spawned - and which ultimately hastened the unravelling of the Soviet Union - have surely not been lost on the Russian generals advising the Syrian army brass. The onus is on Putin to remind the Syrian leader of the timeless wisdom of the British statesman.
To start with, Assad cannot persist with his demands that the Syrian opposition coalition, the US-backed SDF comprising Arab and Kurdish forces, and sundry Sunni rebel groups be excluded from any political settlement if he wants to see genuine reconciliation and the return of over 5.6 million refugees.
The recent talks that followed the invitation extended by his government to the SDF's political wing have raised hopes that Assad may be receiving sound advice from the Russians, who want to see the rebuilding process commence and perhaps want to scale back their involvement.
To their credit, European diplomats have made it clear to the Russians and Assad that no EU reconstruction money will be forthcoming in the absence of an agreed-upon political transition, "with constitutional and electoral processes carried out in a sincere way", to quote the words of the French.
The Russians too have a point: that Syria's reconstruction must not be influenced by politics. But first, Assad must deliver his part of the bargain if he wants Western donors to cough up $200bn for a process that could take up to 15 years and be fraught with risks.
That would mean dusting off a road-map plan hammered out at a meeting in Geneva in 2012 ago by UN Security Council members starting with the formation of a transitional governing body with full executive powers, including drafting a new constitution, and ending with elections. Even if Putin could coax or compel Assad to meet some of the Geneva communique's conditions, there would still remain on Syrian soil a large Iranian presence, accompanied by Hezbollah fighters and Shia paramilitary units.
What role they currently have is hard for war-weary Syrians to fathom, other than to make it easier for Sunni extremist groups to recruit volunteers to target vulnerable communities as happened in Suwayda on July 25.
The buffer zone proposed by the Russians on the Syrian side of the border with Israel that would be off-limits to Iranian forces may buy time for Tehran to position its long-range missiles at a safe distance from a devastating Israeli assault.
But a deployment of Iranian missiles, whether 100km from the Israel border or further away, would serve no apparent purpose except as another affront to Syrians' dignity. Following the Suwayda attacks, Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon's Druze, said: "We want (Russia's) guarantee to the people of the Jebel that they will remain in the Jebel and not be used by Bashar as fodder, living or dead, for his personal ends."
Jumblatt may have been speaking for the Druze, but his words could just as easily be interpreted as a message to Putin from defenceless Syrians cutting across all religious, sectarian, ethnic and political lines.
(Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on Middle East)

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