Assad says refugee returns a 'priority' for Syria

Damascus (AFP) –


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday ahead of a Moscow-backed conference on repatriation that he is adamant on the return of refugees.

Speaking in a video call broadcast by the Syrian presidency's Facebook page ahead of the two-day conference in Damascus opening on Wednesday, Assad called their return a priority for his government.

"For us, as a government, it is a number one priority in the coming stage," especially since large parts of Syria had been recaptured by Damascus and battles have subsided, he told Putin.

"The Syrian government is not just ready, but also eager, for the results of the conference so that we can see the largest number of refugees return in the coming few months."

Assad's forces control more than 70 percent of Syria, while remaining areas are held by US-backed Kurdish forces as well as rebels and jihadists opposed to the Damascus government.

Since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, more than half of its pre-war population has been forced to flee their homes, including 5.5 million abroad.

Neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees.

Last month, Russia pitched an international conference to facilitate their repatriation despite warnings from international agencies and Western nations that it is not yet safe to return.

It remains to be seen which countries will take part in the conference but Lebanon -- which says it hosts some 1.5 million refugees -- will send its caretaker minister of social affairs.

UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Imran Riza is to attend as an observer.

Apart from ongoing violence in some parts of the country, a "siege" imposed by Western nations on Syria is the "biggest obstacle" to refugee returns, Assad told Putin, referring to a spate of Western sanctions since the war started.

The latest US sanctions took effect in June, compounding an economic crisis that has seen the value of the Syrian pound plummet against the dollar while inflation has soared.

Refugee "returns require the provision of their basic needs such as water, electricity and schooling", he said, blaming deteriorating conditions on "illegitimate and unjust" sanctions.

He hoped that Moscow and states participating in the conference could help "ease, lift or remove this siege", so as to facilitate repatriations.

Russia, a main ally of the Damascus government, has for years sought to garner international support to reconstruct Syria and allow for refugee returns.

But Western nations led by the United States have conditioned their help on a political settlement to the nine-year-long conflict.