Russia confirmed on Saturday that it sent a proposal, through a closely guarded communications channel to America’s top general, suggesting the two antagonists cooperate to rebuild Syria. Particularly focused on in the proposal was the repatriation of refugees to the war-torn country as part of this rebuilding process. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian military’s General Staff’s proposition was sent to U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford on July 19, reported Reuters. Having aided Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against rebel forces to consolidate territory and regain almost all control of the country, the proposal will likely consolidate Assad’s hold on power. Russia’s plan presses Washington and other states to aid efforts to reconstruct areas under Assad’s control. However, conditional on US assistance, is a political solution to end the seven-year war, including holding U.N. supervised elections.
Russia’s plan relates specifically to aiding those areas in which the Syrian government controls. According to a U.S government memo in response, “the proposal argues that the Syrian regime lacks the equipment, fuel, other material, and funding needed to rebuild the country in order to accept refugee returns”. However, in line with its policy since 2011, the US has continued to withhold their support until Assad is no longer in power. This continual posture has seen the United States take a back seat as Syrian forces, aided by Iran and Russia have regained territory and control from rebel held areas. Blaming Assad for Syria’s demise, reconstruction assistance from the US is thus conditional on a process tied to political transition. As the memo further stated, “The United States will only support refugee returns when they are safe, voluntary and dignified”, heralding that the current situation in the devastated country did not amount to that.
While a US-Russian cooperation and assistance is essential to assisting Syria rebuild, with U.N estimates suggesting it will cost at least $250 billion, a political deadlock is undermining progress. However, beyond any geo-political interests that the United States may be forging through its posturing against Assad, it is legitimate to champion refugee returns in a voluntary and safe manner. And although the official Syrian Arab News Agency cited an official foreign ministry source as calling on its citizens to return, many may feel unsafe doing so. The Sunni Muslim majority in Syria are among the majority who have fled the country and it is uncertain whether Assad’s Alawite-dominated government will be receptive to their return, particularly as they made up the bulk of the armed opposition to Assad. Beyond this,
The protracted conflict has led to millions being forced to flee their homes in Syria. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to 5.6 million were registered in neighbouring countries, namely Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, while many others have sought refuge in North Africa and Europe. A further 6.6 million have been displaced within Syria. Despite Syrian government assurances, UNHCR has warned that the conditions are not yet in place for the safe return of refugees. The view seems to be shared by many Syrians, many of whom long to return to their country, however are wary of returning before a comprehensive solution to the country’s conflict is reached, notes a study by the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
Cooperation between Russia, the US and the wider international community will be essential in efforts to rebuild Syria. While proposing and advocating for the return of refugees is in the interests of some, namely those neighbouring countries affected by large numbers of Syrian refugees, assuming the demise of the conflict, and encourage returns is perhaps premature. A negotiated settlement should be focused on and administered by the UN, however competing agendas should not be the barrier that prevents millions from returning to their home or what little of home remains
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