The Russian Defense Ministry’s decision to hold an international conference on Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 10-14 stirred various reactions from local and international parties.
While the Syrian side expressed discomfort at the initiative, international organizations and Western countries were confused over the means to deal with the conference’s provisions, especially those pertaining to the conditions of return, the political path, and reconstruction.
Observers noted that the plan implemented by the Hmeimim base came after reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry was seeking to take over the Syrian file with the military intervention in Syria starting its sixth year.
Those reports were based on a recent visit by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Damascus last month, at the head of a high-level Russian delegation. In addition, changes were made to the responsibilities of Russian officials monitoring the Syrian file: Russian Envoy Sergei Vershinin, who is known to be close to the Defense Ministry, was given “lesser tasks”, while former ambassador to Syria, Alexander Kinshchak, was assigned new missions, in his capacity of director of the Middle East and North Africa Department at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Western and international officials were surprised upon receiving an invitation from the Russian side in response to the army’s initiative, to hold an international conference in the Syrian capital to discuss “the return of refugees and displaced persons in various parts of the world to their homeland.”
The invitation read that, given that the Syrian crisis was “relatively stable” and the burdens on host countries increased, the international community should redouble its efforts to provide “comprehensive support to all Syrians wishing to return to their country and create appropriate conditions for their living, especially with regard to infrastructure, living facilities, and humanitarian support.”
This approach was met with a reservation from Damascus, especially with regard to the Russian talk about “a stable situation” and “ending the military operations”, as stated by Lavrov in recent remarks.
In fact, the Syrian government is “not satisfied” with the understandings between Moscow and Ankara over Idlib and between Moscow and Washington over East of the Euphrates.
As the Russian plan stressed the need to “discuss providing support to refugees in the world and bringing peace to Syria,” Western diplomats expressed their countries’ reservations about a political solution outside the framework of the Geneva process, which is held under the auspices of the United Nations and within the context of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
At the same time, diplomats “questioned” the possibility of the Russian Defense Ministry’s success in this “political track.” They cited Russia’s “modest accomplishments” during the Astana process and the National Dialogue Conference in Sochi, which as held at the beginning of 2018.
A senior Western official also expressed “reservations” about the talk about “infrastructure reconstruction”, as Europe and the United States have stated their unwillingness to contribute to reconstruction unless a “credible political process” is implemented.
This position was clearly expressed during the annual International Donors’ Conference in Brussels.
On the other hand, representatives of the UN institutions, who were invited by Moscow, had varied reactions. While UN officials in Damascus expressed a desire to attend the “Russian conference”, others emphasized the need to “respect the United Nations standards” regarding the conditions for the safe return of refugees.
No indications point to a collective intention by Western countries to enter into negotiations with the Russian side on how to deal with the upcoming “refugee conference,” at a time when overlapping regional and international files may deter some countries from “angering” Russia.