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Syria says refugees can return - but to what?
Syrian government officials vowed on Monday to ensure the safe return of refugees to the country, while urging Western countries to help by lifting sanctions. But many commentators greeted the offer with scepticism.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the refugees’ return is a top priority for Damascus, adding that “the Syrian government will facilitate their return by all means.” He added that the country would welcome any foreign assistance, provided it comes with no preconditions.
President Bashar al-Assad's forces have won a series of victories in recent months, mainly confining opposition fighters to Syria's northern Idlib province.
Although the fighting is over in much of Syria, many of the more than five million Syrian refugees outside the country are reported to be reluctant to return home, apparently fearing violence from government forces, conscription into the military, or, at the very least, a poor quality of life.
Fear of torture and killings
"The main fear would be that the government would mistreat them in some way - in some cases, arrest them, maybe even torture them or put them to death; the other is that of returning to Syria in light of the fact that it is an extremely devastated country right now,” said William Jordan, a former US State Department official in Syria, in an interview with RFI.
“There are a lot of questions about whether houses are still standing, what kind of livelihood these people could pursue,” Jordan continued. “In some cases, the government is reportedly taking steps to identify those Syrian refugees who have left as politically questionable and has even undertaken to revoke whatever titles they may have had to property."
"We think that it's premature to promote returns. Syria is still very insecure, there's still a lot of war going on in Syria," Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, said on Monday, after meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin. "If some people decide, they make their own personal voluntary choice, we need to see how we can support them. But I think it's premature to think of a mass repatriation programme."
"I think the Syrian government lost credibility a long time ago, considering what they have inflicted on the Syrian people in the last six or seven years,” commented Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at Regent's University London.
“If you look at this specifically, it is no more than a public relations exercise, in which, in reality, very few Syrian refugees are coming back - up to 2,000, when we are talking about five million refugees and of course many more internally displaced within the country,” Mekelberg told RFI.
“If this is the new attempt to legitimise the government in Syria, I think this is quite a lame one."
The sanctions include an arms embargo and a ban on dealing with the Syrian central bank. Syrian officials have said that getting rid of them would help the country rebuild and therefore improve conditions for returning refugees.
‘No political process’
But, according to Jordan, it is highly unlikely that the sanctions will be removed in the foreseeable future.
"There is no political process underpinning the end of the civil war, nothing that has been done so far to create conditions that I think would satisfy the West that whatever 'peace' - and I put that word within inverted commas - would be sustainable,” Jordan argued.
“Remember that we're still dealing with the unresolved question of what happens in the north-western part of Syria, around the province of Idlib, where there is a large concentration of Syrian rebels and pro-opposition internal refugees located on the Turkish border,” he continued.