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“Damascus” conference… Russian efforts pressure refugees in Syria’s neighboring countries

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad receives a Russian delegation from the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev- 29 October 2020 (The Syrian Presidency Facebook page)

The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad receives a Russian delegation from the Ministry of Defense and Foreign Affairs headed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev- 29 October 2020 (The Syrian Presidency Facebook page)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

Russian delegations in Damascus and neighboring countries worked during the last weeks to prepare and coordinate a conference for refugees in Damascus, which is set to be held on 11 and 12 of the current November.

This Russian endeavor is met by an international rejection and a human rights-based concern that the conference will increase pressure on refugees in neighboring countries, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon.

Attempts to polarize and gain the support of neighboring countries

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, visited Jordan on 27 October, with a high-level Russian delegation and met Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Ayman al-Safadi.

The meeting parties discussed how to facilitate a safe and voluntary return for Syrian refugees and ensure that the international community continues to provide the needed support for refugee-hosting countries, especially within the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The following day, the same delegation visited the Lebanese capital Beirut to meet Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and consult on ensuring appropriate conditions for refugees’ return to their country.

“Areas under the control of the Syrian regime’s government have become safe, and refugees want to return to their homes,” the Russian delegation said in the meeting.

The Lebanese president confirmed that he looks forward to “finding a quick solution that ensures the return of the Syrian refugees to their country, especially as several regions in Syria became stable after the end of fighting there,” as he said.

Aoun also said that “Lebanon can no longer afford the further negative repercussions of the refugees, which, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has cost Lebanon more than 40 billion US dollars.”

Aoun pointed out that international aid to Syrian refugees should be provided to them in Syria because “it would encourage them to return and ensure the continuation of assistance to them.”

The Lebanese president expressed his hope that “a new conference on refugee issues could help find an appropriate solution to this humanitarian matter.”

On 29 October, the Russian delegation visited the Syrian regime president, Bashar al-Assad, to discuss the challenges facing the conference and attempts to bring it to failure or exert international pressure on countries that want to participate in it.

What are the events that led to the conference?

The Russian Defense Ministry called for a “conference of Syrian refugees” held under Russian auspices for the first time on 5 September 2018. Back then, Russia described the conference as a “historic event” and stressed the need for the participation of the countries concerned and the United Nations (UN) in it.

Chief of Russia’s National Defense Management Center, Mikhail Mezentsev, said at the time that “Al-Assad has received the Russian initiative with exceptional positiveness to hold an international conference on refugees.”

On 21 July 2018, the United States President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met at the Helsinki Summit, in which Moscow presented the United States (US) with some proposals.

These proposals called for joining and organizing efforts for the return of Syrian refugees and forming a joint group to finance the reconstruction of Syria’s infrastructure.

The proposals also included forming a joint plan for the return of refugees to where they used to live before the conflict, particularly from Lebanon and Jordan. In addition to forming a joint Russian, American, and Jordanian working group, under the auspices of the Amman Monitoring Center, and the formation of a similar group in Lebanon.

After that, the Mini-Group on Syria (Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United States, France, Jordan, and the United Kingdom) met and issued a statement asserting that there is no solution in Syria before reaching a lasting political solution based on the UN Security Council resolution “2254”.

Nevertheless, the conference did not occur despite the Russian attempts to hold it and get the reconstruction finance from the donor countries.

However, the Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, declared again on 23 October that the conference would be held on 11 and 12 November.

International rejection led by Washington

On its part, the United States called for an international boycott of the Russian conference in a teleconference meeting of the Security Council on 27 of last October.

Deputy Representative of the United States to the United Nations, Richard Mills, said that “it is entirely inappropriate for Moscow, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to oversee the return of refugees.”

Mills warned that Syria is not prepared for a “large-scale” return of refugees and that the influx could cause instability.

While Russia’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, has criticized what he described as a “bias against Syria” and the efforts “to discredit this humanitarian initiative,” according to his expression.

As for the Permanent Representative of France to the United Nations, Nicolas de Rivière, he said that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) should take the lead in repatriating Syrian refugees. He added that Paris “would oppose any attempt to politicize the issue of refugee return.”

De Rivière said before the Security Council that “the conditions for a safe, dignified, and voluntary return of Syrian refugees have not yet been met.” He confirmed that “the return of refugees will take place only in the event of a credible political process, and no conference can achieve this.”

In turn, the special envoy of the United Nations’ secretary-general for Syria, Geir Pedersen, who met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim and other officials in the Syrian capital, Damascus on 25 October, called for a “serious and cooperative effort” to address “a safe, dignified, informed, and voluntary return of Syrian refugees.”

Why Damascus?

The Conference of Syrian Refugees is a Russian attempt to support the Syrian regime and save it from the crisis of its economic disasters, according to what the Syrian political analyst, who is specialized in Russian affairs, Mahmoud Hamza, said to Enab Baladi.

The political analyst added that Russia wants to hold the conference in Damascus because going to Damascus means acknowledging the legitimacy of the Syrian regime in one way or another, which most countries refuse to do.

Hamza said the US position on this matter is crucial, especially with the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” which alienates the Syrian regime and warns Russian, Iranian, and European companies against dealing with it.

The analyst does not expect the conference to succeed because of the US “veto” first and for the regime’s continued intransigence and lack of response in the political process with the Syrian Constitutional Committee (SCC).

Hamza described the conference as one of the Russian attempts to circumvent and deceive the international community that the circumstances are safe in Syria for refugees’ return, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a short time ago despite the continuous bombardment in northern Syria.

European countries do not consider Damascus safe

The German Foreign Ministry stated last June that Syria is still an unsafe place for Syrian refugees.

The ministry issued a statement saying, “there is still a considerable risk to refugees in Syria, either because of the many militias and their checkpoints or the weapons in the hands of these regime militias, which the regime continues to use mercilessly against the Syrian people through its various intelligence services.”

This situation, however, does not include all the European Union (EU) countries, as the Danish Minister of Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye said last June that “the Immigration Department should begin reviewing the residency permits granted in Denmark to Syrian refugees coming from Damascus,” according to the Danish immigration and integration website.

Tesfaye pointed out that about 100 thousand refugees returned to Syria from Damascus’s surrounding areas, considering that Syrians in Europe should return if circumstances permit.

How would the conference affect the Syrian refugees?

Human Rights activist and Syrian researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, Sarah al-Kayyali, said to Enab Baladi that “the main reasons that forced Syrians to leave in the first place still exist, such as arbitrary arrests, torture in prisons and the tragic human and economic situation, especially in the Syrian regime-held regions.”

Al-Kayyali referred to violations of property rights, land rights, and the right to own a house, which the Syrian government violated even after the manifestations of war decreased in many regions in Syria.

Al-Kayyali thinks that this conference aims to increase the pressure on refugees, particularly by the governments of neighboring countries, with regard to voluntary repatriation.

The activist does not believe that this conference will succeed because it is not Russia’s first attempt, and since Russia does not want to change the political situation, there will be no return of refugees.

In the meantime, limited numbers of Syrian refugees in Lebanon have returned to Syria, in conjunction with an upsurge in hate speech against the refugees, official and popular campaigns calling for their return, as well as security restrictions and narrowing down their rights.

According to official figures, Lebanon alone has an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees, but the number of Syrian refugees officially registered at the UNHCR is only about 950,000 persons.

While some 660,000 UNHCR registered Syrian refugees live in Jordan.

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