Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that millions of Syrian refugees who have fled their country’s civil war should start returning home to help rebuild their country now that large parts of the Arab nation welcome relative peace.
According to the Independent, Putin’s remarks came in a video-call with Syrian President Bashar Assad right before a two-day international conference regarding refugees in Damascus, scheduled to begin Wednesday. The controversial meeting, organized by Russia, has been criticized by U.N. and U.S. officials.
In the video-call, Putin said that “international terrorism has been almost wiped out and return to civilian life should begin gradually.” Russia and the Syrian government refer to all insurgent groups as “terrorists.”
Putin also told Assad that a deal for Syria’s conflict should include the return of refugees in accordance with the United Nations Security Council resolution 2254. He added that the millions of refugees “are people of working age and should work on rebuilding their country.”
The UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted in December 2015 sets a timetable for talks and a cease-fire that was never met.
Syria’s nine-year war has led to the death of approximately half a million citizens, wounded more than a million, and forced about 5.6 million to leave the country as refugees, mostly to neighboring countries. Another 6 million of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million are internally displaced.
Russia joined Syria’s war in September 2015, transforming the balance of power in the favor of Assad, whose troops have since taken the vast majority of the country. Syrian anarchists still control the northwestern province of Idlib, while US-backed Kurdish-led fighters control areas of the country’s east.
A UN-facilitated political process has been stuck for months, and many Western countries blame Damascus for blocking progress.
Unlike the Russian president, many Syrians and Western countries see current conditions in Syria as not in good shape at all for the mass return of refugees.
It remains unclear two days ahead of the Damascus conference, whether some of the countries that host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, would attend.
“Syria accuses Turkey, which backs the armed opposition to Assad, of illegally deploying troops inside Syrian territory that is controlled by the rebels,” The Independent stated.
Lebanon, which hosts the highest per capita number of Syrian refugees in the world, said it would send a small delegation.
“This conference will only be the beginning to solve this humanitarian problem,” Assad said in the video-call, adding that the biggest issue for the return of Syrian refugees are Western sanctions, which he described as “illegitimate and unjust.”