Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on November 9, 2020 AFP
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday ahead of a Moscow-backed conference on repatriation that he is adamant on the return of refugees.
Speaking in a video call broadcast by the Syrian presidency's Facebook page ahead of the two-day conference that opens Wednesday in Damascus, Assad called their return a priority for his government.
"For us, as a government, it is a number one priority in the coming stage," especially since large parts of Syria had been recaptured by Damascus and battles have subsided, he told Putin.
"The Syrian government is not just ready, but also eager, for the results of the conference so that we can see the largest number of refugees return in the coming few months."
Assad's forces control more than 70 percent of Syria, while remaining areas are held by US-backed Kurdish forces as well as rebels and jihadists opposed to the Damascus government.
Since Syria's conflict started in 2011, more than half of its pre-war population has been forced to flee their homes, including 5.5 million who went abroad.
Neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are hosting the highest number of Syrian refugees.
Last month, Damascus said it would hold an international conference to facilitate their repatriation despite warnings from international agencies and Western nations that it is not yet safe to return.
But Putin said violence in Syria had diminished thanks to the "joint efforts" of Russia, fellow regime ally Iran and rebel backer Turkey in negotiations to end the war.
"Now peace and calm have returned to most of Syria, there is a good possibility of ensuring a massive return of refugees," a Kremlin statement quoted him as saying.
He said representatives from 30 ministries and other government institutions would be attending.
It remains to be seen which countries will take part in the conference. Lebanon -- which says it hosts some 1.5 million refugees -- will send its caretaker minister of social affairs.
UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Imran Riza is to attend as an observer.
Apart from ongoing violence in some parts of the country, a "siege" imposed by Western nations on Syria is the "biggest obstacle" to refugee returns, Assad told Putin, referring to a spate of Western sanctions since the war started.
The latest US sanctions took effect in June, compounding an economic crisis that has seen the value of the Syrian pound plummet against the dollar while inflation has soared.
Refugee "returns require the provision of their basic needs such as water, electricity and schooling", Assad said, blaming deteriorating conditions on "illegitimate and unjust" sanctions.
He hoped that Moscow and states participating in the conference could help "ease, lift or remove this siege", so as to facilitate repatriations.
Russia, a main ally of the Damascus government, has for years sought to garner international support to reconstruct Syria and allow for refugee returns.
But Western nations led by the United States have conditioned their help on a political settlement to the nine-year-long conflict.