While Washington was reeling from the news that senior American leaders hid from the Congress and the president the exact numbers of American troops in Syria “in a shell game,” the Syrian government was putting on an elaborate show in Damascus for its refugees from the bloody civil war to return.  

The Syrian and Russian governments are calling for the more than six million refugees who were displaced by the country’s civil war to come home. Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke during a conference call, said it was time for refugees to return home and rebuild Syria. 

Putin stated that many areas of the largely shattered country are now enjoying peace. He added that “international terrorism has been almost wiped out and return to civilian life should begin gradually.”

Russia, a key supporter of the Assad regime, aided the Syrian government with a large-scale bombing campaign. Many in the West and in Syria claim that the campaign indiscriminately targeted the civilian population. 

Damascus Conference

The UN, Syrian and Western observers criticized Assad for holding this conference stating that the economic and security situation is not conducive to the return of most of the refugees.

The UN and the EU declined to participate in this “premature” conference stating that refugees will face several challenges upon returning to Syria. These include forced disappearances, indiscriminate detentions, conscription, poor or nonexistent social services, physical and sexual violence, and torture.

The U.S. criticized the conference as a distraction. 

Joel Rayburn, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, said the conference was “just a dog and pony show meant to distract from the fact that the Russians and the Assad regime have not done what the international community has been pressing them to do, which is to end the war and move to a political solution under UN Security Council resolution 2254.”

The civil war has been very costly for the Syrian people. An estimated 500,000 have died and 6.5 million people have been displaced outside Syria; nearly another six million have been internally displaced. For a country with a pre-civil war population of about 23 million, these numbers add up to more than half its population. 

Assad with the support of Russian airstrikes has retaken the majority of Syrian territory, but there are still areas under the control of rebel factions. These rebel factions were characterized as “terrorists” by Putin during the call with Assad. 

Richard Albright, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration said that, “The few returns (of refugees) that have taken place have all too often been met with secondary displacement, continued dependence on international assistance and, in some cases, forced conscription, detention, forced disappearances and other human rights violations.”

“Displaced Syrians know this, and that’s why they’re not going back,” he added.

As indicated in the Secretary’s comments, fear of Assad and his regime forces is a major factor keeping many Syrians away. 

The New York Times has interviewed several Syrians who voiced the same concerns. 

“I don’t trust the regime nor [Assad],” said Yusra Abdo, 40, who has been living in Lebanon since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. She added that her brother-in-law disappeared after being conscripted into the Syrian Army and her house was seized by government loyalists.

“With this regime, there is no safety, no going back,” she said.

Even with much of the territory now back under Assad’s control, the security situation is far from stable. With terrorists from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda active in the region, the threat of violence persists. 

Many of the larger Syrian cities have been damaged. Thus, there’s no place for the majority of refugees to live, even if they did return. And with a shattered economy, there is little money for any kind of major reconstruction. 

As mentioned, many of the refugees fled fearing the Assad regime itself rather than the rebel groups. But Assad ignored those fears and blamed other Arab and Western countries for conducting an international conspiracy to topple his regime while thanking Russia and Iran for their support. He added that the same countries were using refugees as “a lucrative source of income for their corrupt officials” and preventing them from returning to Syria.

“Rather than taking effective action to create the right conditions for their return, these countries used every means possible, from bribery to intimidation, to keep Syrian refugees from returning home,” he said.

He added that the West is trying to keep the refugees in neighboring countries by damaging Syria’s economy with sanctions.

The conference attendees included more Russians than Syrians, according to some observers. Russian security guards with hand-held radios were conspicuous in gathering. 

Many in the West believe this is a ploy by Assad to get international aid sent to Syria.