After ten long years, Syria is back in the news. Although this is likely to be fleeting, as the international community has long experienced conflict fatigue with regards to Syria, it is another opportunity to focus on the terrible situation there. In a world afflicted with the ongoing pandemic, it is at times understandable for stories and situations to fall out of the public gaze, but Syria has done so far too often, even after atrocities.
In recent days, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies have been attacking Daraa in southern Syria relentlessly; civilians have been killed. The courage of the people of Daraa, who have been demonstrating against Assad's fake election in May, is clear to see. They have essentially spoiled the victory for Assad. His artillery shelling of Daraa in retaliation is being led by his brother, Maher Al-Assad, whose troops are known as the 4th Armoured Division and are notorious for their ruthlessness.
Whilst Maher Al-Assad being involved in offensives is no real surprise, the fact is that there is meant to be a de-escalation agreement in place in Syria which covers various zones around the country, including the Daraa province. This offensive has not been a success for the regime; it has incurred losses over the past few days as it lacked Russian air support, proving how crucial Russia is for Assad.
These de-escalation zones were agreed to by the Assad regime at the conclusion of the Astana peace process in 2017, brokered by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The dominance of states friendly to the regime — Russia and Iran — guaranteed an outcome that was more amenable to Assad and did not demand regime change, which the process should have done. Despite this, the regime cannot abide by the agreed zones. This is the absolute minimum that Assad should be doing, but the arrogance and feeling of infallibility is so ingrained within him that he thinks he can take orders from no one. The irony is that if it wasn't for Russia's intervention in the summer of 2015, the Assad regime would probably have collapsed.
It has been said that Assad was concerned about the outcome of the recent meeting between Russia's Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden, but it seems that the Syrian dictator has forgotten his position within this power dynamic. He is not Russia's benefactor; it is the other way around. Russia's neo imperialism in Syria will not be forgotten any time soon, and its actions in Syria — bombing hospitals despite knowing their coordinates, for example — constitute war crimes. It is unknown exactly what Biden and Putin discussed, but it is unlikely that Syria would have been top of the agenda, which means that Russian impunity is likely to continue.
Ultimately, talk of "reconstruction" and the return of Syrian refugees cannot be serious whilst the war is ongoing and blood is still being shed. A ceasefire is an absolute minimum requirement before even talking about reconstruction, but the regime feels that it is above this as Gulf States want to re-establish diplomatic relations with Damascus. Reconstruction should not even be on the agenda as long as Assad is president; how can the arsonist become the fireman?
Nevertheless, there are concerns that King Abdullah of Jordan – the first Arab ruler to make clear that Assad should step down — has been pushing Biden to build a road map to restore Syria's "sovereignty and unity" without opposing the idea of Assad staying in power. Jordan's main concerns are restoring customs agreements with Syria and Lebanon as their trade convoys generally pass through Jordan on the way to Saudi Arabia, as well as repatriating refugees to Syria. Any mention of sovereignty is meaningless with Russian and Iranian encroachment over the past decade. It is also worth mentioning that Jordan was part of the Military Operation Centre (MOC) led by the Americans to control military activities in southern Syria and ensure that no unknown groups were threatening the border between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
Assad feels that the wind is blowing in his favour. The Covid-19 pandemic means that most states are busy with their own health issues, and the regional aftermath of the Beirut explosion a year ago as well as the recent Israeli air strikes on Gaza have helped push Syria further down the agenda. As important as these issues are, the predicament of the Syrian people must not be forgotten, and reconstruction cannot take place under a ruler who is still fighting and has the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands.
As we witness the Syrian regime attacking Daraa, where events marked the start of the Syrian uprising against Assad in March 2011, will Daraa also be the beginning of the end for his regime? Although Assad is keen to stop the war in order to announce his victory and start reconstruction, the Syrian government is struggling to provide basic daily needs for citizens, with corruption and misuse of resources rife. Furthermore, many voices are being heard in opposition to Assad, even in areas known to be very much pro-regime, such as Latakia. This is an ominous sign for him.
Now we must wonder if the anger and demonstrations in Daraa against Assad will extend to other areas. The Syrian economy is struggling and the vast majority of Syrian people are living below the poverty line. This might not be clear, but it is obvious that Syrian refugees cannot return home whilst Assad is still in power and the Iranians are still occupying the country. The Syrian people also believe that Russia is part of the problem and not the solution; a state that has played such a crucial role in the destruction of Syria, cannot offer a remedy to its problems. The international community fails to understand this. Worse still, it apparently does not want to.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.