Analysis

Russia-backed conference on Syria refugee return a farce: experts

By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo

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A Russia-backed conference to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees, held November 11th and 12th, lacked credibility, Syria experts said. [Photo via SANA news agency]

A two-day Russia-backed conference held in Syria last week to facilitate the return of refugees "has no value" because the main countries hosting refugees boycotted it, Syrian affairs experts told Diyaruna.

They described the conference as a thinly disguised play by Russia, Iran and China to accelerate reconstruction and the lucrative contracts that come with it, and to bolster the Syrian regime without holding it accountable for its crimes.

Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna the conference for Syrian refugees' return held in Damascus on November 11th and 12th was "absolutely meaningless" amid the current circumstances, as nothing has changed in Syria.

He said conditions that forced civilians to flee the country and seek asylum still exist, notably arbitrary arrests, repression, murder and corruption, which are still happening with the full support of Russia and Iran.

"How could internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees be asked to return to their hometowns while those towns lack security and arrests, bombings and raids still take place almost every day?" he asked.

Before discussing the return of refugees, the displacement crisis in Syria should be resolved, especially in the Idlib region, where more than three million Syrians have taken refuge, he said.

Syria still not safe

Syria is still vulnerable and Syrians are not safe across the country, particularly in areas controlled by the regime, where there have been arbitrary arrests and an overall neglect of the people and their needs, al-Abdullah said.

In rural Damascus and in the southern province of Daraa, security has significantly deteriorated despite the regime's promises to the local population, he said, which increases the likelihood of a major outbreak of violence.

Political researcher Abdul Nabi Bakkar described the conference on Syrian refugees' return as "a disingenuous move by Russia, Iran and China".

The conference had two main goals, he told Diyaruna.

It sought to legitimise the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, he said, as if the regime's massacre of civilians and forced displacements did not occur. And it sought to lay the groundwork for divvying up reconstruction contracts.

Initial infrastructure deals were announced during the conference, he said, pointing out that injecting reconstruction money into Syria supports the existence of the ruling regime.

Neighbouring countries host the lion's share of Syrian refugees, but of these only Lebanon and Iraq sent representatives to the conference, organisers said.

Turkey hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees, followed by Lebanon and Jordan. But Jordan did not attend the conference, while Syrian opposition backer Turkey was not invited, AFP reported.

The EU also did not attend, maintaining that the situation in Syria was not yet safe for returns.

Meanwhile, Bakkar said, many countries that were invited to participate in the conference have "absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian refugee crisis".

This casts doubts on the conference's legitimacy, he said.

These countries were Cuba, Algeria, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Colombia, Argentina, Sri Lanka and Abkhazia.

By inviting delegations from these countries, Bakkar said, organisers attempted to use them as a cover to hide their own intentions regarding al-Assad's regime.

Time is not right

Calling on refugees to return before the conditions are ripe for that is "a violation of international law", Bakkar cautioned.

International conventions mandate that a normal life can be provided for returning civilians, he said, which means ending military operations, guaranteeing their safety and ensuring they are not persecuted.

According to international conventions, he added, returning refugees should have access to basic infrastructure and services, which are not currently available in Syria due to the level of destruction caused by the ongoing war.

Syrian lawyer Bashir al-Bassam told Diyaruna that al-Assad's speech during the opening of the conference was "laughable", especially the part in which he held the non-participating countries responsible for Syrians' displacement.

Al-Assad referred to the US and European countries, even though these countries are granting asylum to hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians to protect them from the actions of the Syrian regime, al-Bassam said.

Al-Assad also claimed that "millions of Syrians" living abroad would like to return, he added -- which is simply not true.

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