DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian government is working to secure the return of millions of refugees who fled war in their country, but Western sanctions are hindering the work of state institutions, complicating those plans, President Bashar Assad said Wednesday.
His comments came at the opening session of a controversial two-day international conference in Damascus on the return of refugees. The event, organized by Russia, is being boycotted by many Arab and Western countries and has been criticized by the U.N. and the U.S. Critics say the time is not ripe yet for the return of refugees, insisting the first priority should be to make it safe for people to go back to the war-torn country.
Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria, with the backing of his allies Russia and Iran, which helped tip the balance of power in his favor. The conflict that began with antigovernment protests in March 2011 as part of the region’s Arab Spring, quickly morphed into a civil war.
The conference was held in a giant hall with participants, most of them wearing masks, observing social distancing because of the coronavirus. Many countries were invited but only 27 agreed to participate, including neighboring Lebanon and Iraq which host large numbers of Syrian refugees, according to state TV.
Neighboring Turkey, a main backer of Syrian opposition forces, was not invited. Another neighbor, Jordan, which also hosts Syrian refugees, did not participate.
Lebanon’s outgoing Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbi addressed the gathering by video conference and used the opportunity to call on the international community to help in the return of Syrian refugees. Lebanon is hosting the highest per capita number of Syrian refugees, who at one point made nearly a quarter of the tiny country’s population of 5 million.
Syria’s nine-year war has killed about half a million people, wounded more than a million and forced about 5.6 million to flee abroad as refugees, mostly to neighboring countries. Another 6 million of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million have been internally displaced by the fighting.
“We are working hard for the return of every refugee who wants to come back and help rebuild the country,” Assad said in a speech aired at the beginning of the conference. But, he added, there “are major obstacles — including pressures exerted on refugees not to return and the illegitimate economic sanctions and the siege imposed by the American regime and its allies.”
Assad said the European and U.S. sanctions on his government, imposed over the war hinder rebuilding efforts and improvement of infrastructure that was damaged by the war, which doesn’t help the return of refugees.
In a video call with Assad on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said large parts of Syria are relatively peaceful and that it was time for the millions of Syrians who fled to return home and help rebuild.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition criticized the conference, saying it cannot be organized “by the criminal who is responsible for the crime.” The return of refugees can happen only after bombing of rebel-held areas stops and a political transition is achieved, the coalition added.
Mroue reported from Beirut.