DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday met with a high-level Russian delegation advocating for jointly hosting an international conference on refugees in the capital Damascus next month.
Western nations and many of the more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees are against an international conference on the return of refugees and displaced persons prior to a political resolution to the 9-year-old war. Another 6 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country.
A U.N.-facilitated political process has been stuck for months and many Western countries blame the Assad government for blocking progress. Many Syrians and Western countries believe conditions in Syria are not ripe for the mass return of refugees who escaped the war.
It is also not clear whether some of the largest hosts of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, would attend a conference held in Damascus. Syria accuses Turkey, which backs the armed opposition, of illegally deploying troops inside Syrian territory controlled by rebels.
The proposed dates for the Russia-sponsored conference are Nov. 11-12.
The Russian delegation, led by President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, met with Assad, according to state news agency SANA.
The two sides discussed efforts to ensure the conference achieves positive results that contribute to “alleviating the suffering of Syrian refugees and allowing them to return to their homeland and their normal life,” particularly after restoring stability and security in most of Syria, SANA said after the meeting.
“The talks dealt with the challenges facing the conference, especially the attempts of some countries to prevent its convening, thwart it, or to exert pressure on countries willing to participate,” SANA said.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills said Wednesday the conference was not organized in coordination with the U.N. or the countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, urging nations to boycott it.
Mills said the U.S. “does not believe the Russian military is a credible host for convening a meaningful discussion on the return of refugees.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said “the forum will provide a platform for substantive dialogue with all stakeholders on all issues related to providing assistance to Syrians returning to their homes.”
“Unfortunately, we are forced to say that due to the anti-Syrian bias a number of colleagues had immediately started to discredit this humanitarian initiative,” Nebenzia said.
“We are receiving clear signals about the refusal of a number of Western states to even discuss this topic” even though it is in the 2015 Security Council resolution endorsing the roadmap to peace in Syria, he said.
Mills said discussing the return of refugees is “completely premature,” given the lack of conditions for such a return. Encouraging the return of refugees with hostilities still on the ground and with lack of a political solution would lead to instability and a “revolving door of displacement,” he said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from New York.