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Assad and his henchmen should be careful what they wish for

It was not surprising to hear one of the Syrian regime’s most notorious military officers threatening to punish refugees who return to Syria. President Bashar Assad has repeatedly said that the Syrian social fabric is now better than before, with the departure of those who fled war, killings and torture. He repeated this two weeks ago when he said that Syria now had “a homogeneous healthy society,” despite the war.
We do not know what Assad and his squad mean by homogeneity. Is it to get rid off Syrians he does not like, and those who revolted six years ago searching for dignity? For everyone to be submissive to the machine of repression that he commands, and to which Iran and Russia contributed?
Assad’s threats against the refugees have now been echoed by Maj. Gen. Issam Zahreddine, a despotic figure and one of the most brutal officers in the Syrian army. There are videos and photos that show him standing next to mutilated bodies and tortured prisoners, and considerable evidence that he is a war criminal. Zahreddine, who represented the ugly image of the regime, is a powerful presence in the media and a frequent guest on pro-Iranian channels, where he glorifies the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah as well as Assad.
He appeared on TV again last week, when he was congratulated by Assad for breaking the three-year Daesh siege of Deir Ezzor. Zahreddine took the opportunity to address the estimated five million refugees created since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. “My advice to those who fled Syria to another country,” he said, “is to never return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive nor forget.” Zahreddine claimed later that he had been misunderstood, and that he had been referring only to extremist militants who fought the Syrian army. However, everybody understood the clear message behind his words, which is fully consistent with the official view frequently stated by Assad in the past two years.

They say Syria is better off without the five million refugees who have fled, but the regime’s brutality and the misery it creates are a fertile breeding ground for the resurgence of Daesh.

Diana Moukalled

These statements by Assad and his henchmen show the lengths to which the regime will go to exploit their military achievements. Their view is that the winner on the battlefield is entitled to exercise power arbitrarily, especially against the large segment of the population that opposes the regime, namely refugees and displaced persons. Anyone who dares to oppose the regime’s opinion, power and influence will be punished. Zahreddine’s apologies are meaningless; the regime does not really want the refugees back, just as it has never cared that it was responsible for their plight in the first place.
It is not surprising that the Syrian regime is still being offensive, after military victories achieved with the help of Russian planes and Iranian-backed sectarian militias. The Western world, which accepts the normalization of relations with a regime that killed its own citizens with chemical gas and barrel bombs, will not care much whether refugees return to their country, as long as they are scattered in neighboring countries and there is no risk that they will reach Europe. 
The world has abandoned the Syrian people, and the Syrian regime is well aware of this. So the retribution will now begin against those who have paid the highest price over the past six years.
However, the Syrian regime and the rest of the world forget that this victory is based on the destruction of at least 10 cities and the killing of hundreds of thousands of people. The massive destruction, displacement and misery, as well as the refugee crisis, has affected about 20 million people in Syria and Iraq. 
These circumstances are an ideal environment for the expansion of Daesh, or another similar terrorist group. No one is thinking about the consequences of the new map being drawn, which may lead us to endless wars.
• Diana Moukalled is a veteran journalist with extensive experience in both traditional and new media. She is also a columnist and freelance documentary producer. Twitter @dianamoukalled