The International Conference on the Return of Syrian Refugees was held in the Syrian capital Damascus under the auspices of Russia, and its proceedings ended on 11 and 12 November 2020, against the backdrop of the absence of all countries influencing the international decision and the countries that host the highest number of Syrian refugees, at a time that has its own political significance in relation to the Russian role in the Syrian issue and that reveals the nature of this role and its orientations during the period ahead.

Repeated Russian attempts

The US, Canada, the European Union (EU), Jordan, and Turkey refrained from participating in the Conference due to what they described as “the lack of safe conditions in conformity with international laws for the return of [Syrian] refugees”, even as human rights organisations warned that the cessation of fighting in several Syrian regions does not mean that those regions have become ready for the return of refugees in the light of their lack of infrastructure and services and fear of human rights violations.

On the other hand, the Conference was attended by a large Russian delegation and representatives of some allied countries of Damascus, such as Venezuela, Iran and China (countries that do not host Syrian refugees), in addition to six Arab countries, namely Lebanon, Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Mauritania and Oman, while the United Nations (UN) attended as an observer.

This step, which was sponsored and supported by Russia, is not the first of its kind, and does not appear to be the last. After Moscow failed to hold a conference for Syrian refugees in 2018 as a result of the field changes that took place on the ground at the time due to the coincidence of military actions with the settlement agreements imposed by Russia in several areas of Syria, whereby control over those areas was given back to the Damascus government, Moscow is now repeating its attempt to hold the Conference without putting forward new ideas, projects and visions, in an effort to shuffle the cards of the political process and bypass it towards opening the file of the reconstruction phase, in which the EU countries and the US refuse to get involved before a comprehensive political solution is reached in Syria.

Moscow did not stand by and watch the failure of the first round of the refugee return conference. It was aware of the outcome. Therefore, it sought to activate this track during the period of political confusion in the US as a result of the presidential elections and their repercussions. Moscow clearly hopes that the second round of the Conference, which is supposed to be held later on in Lebanon, would be more successful due to the change of venue (from Damascus to Beirut ), which may encourage Western actors to participate. Therefore, Moscow seeks to hold a second round of the Conference on Lebanese soil, which may put the Syrian issue on a new track aimed at diluting the efforts of a balanced and comprehensive solution or programming it according to the Russian vision. That track would be added to tracks that had been contrived by Moscow to tighten its control over the Syrian issue, such as the Astana Track, through which it tried to divert the Geneva Track away from the political process and obstruct it, and the successive meetings in Russian Sochi at the level of senior officials in Iran, Russia and Turkey to advance their respective common interests.

The Russian agency Sputnik had reported Moscow's support in mid-November 2020 through the head of the Russian-Syrian Coordination Center for the Return of Refugees Mikhail Mezentsev who referred to a Lebanese initiative to hold the second round of the International Conference on the Return of Syrian Refugees, even as media outlets reported the invitation by the Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs and Tourism Ramzi Musharrafieh to hold the second round, during his meeting with the Russian President's Special Envoy to Syria Alexander Lavrentiev, on the sidelines of the Refugee Conference in Damascus.

While no new statements were made by the Lebanese side regarding the issue of the refugee conference and the time it would be held, Russia must take upon itself the issues of financing and organisation, to complete this issue as a new track.

Holding a second round of the Conference will likely constitute, from the Russian point of view, a logical political investment, and will contribute to highlighting the features of a new track that could emerge from it, especially after the Damascus government delegation to the Syrian Constitutional Committee, during its fourth round (30 November to 4 December 2020), deliberately deviated from the proposed agenda for that round and discussed the issue of the return of refugees. Perhaps the delegation will not change this approach during the fifth round, which is supposed to be held at the end of January 2021, in what appears to be a Russian effort that was coordinated with Damascus to achieve the highest level of pressure possible on countries that refuse to participate in the reconstruction without preconditions, by activating the refugee issue from the perspective of reducing their burden on the host countries.

Russian interests and gains

Indications show that Russia sought to display the Conference on the Return of Refugees as one of the cards for the solution in Syria that Russia seeks to seize, along the lines of the Constitutional Committee that it had launched through the Sochi Conference (January 2018) and imposed on the international community, thereby mixing the hierarchy of stages of the political solution in accordance with United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2254. Moscow seeks to benefit from the momentum of international engagement with the Constitutional Committee track by introducing a humanitarian track that it would share with the countries concerned with refugee affairs, along the lines of the Astana Track (2017) which brought together the countries associated with military actions on Syrian soil.

Likewise, Russia seeks to exploit the refugee return issue as part of its efforts to break the international isolation imposed on the Syrian regime. It is aware that if steps are taken to return refugees to Syria, a UN and international coordination will have to be established with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which would lead to interaction with the Syrian regime at various levels, the most important of which being the security and political levels.

Russia seeks to launch the reconstruction process through the refugee return issue, considering that the infrastructure in Syria is not eligible for the return of the Syrian refugees and, therefore, would require reconstruction worth billions of dollars to keep pace with and anticipate this return. This would reflect positively on its Syrian ally which would reap many benefits, including marketing reconstruction projects again and benefiting from the available funds to revive its ailing economy, as well as the desire to circumvent the sanctions of the Caesar Act by introducing or smuggling all the regime's needs as aid for refugees. On its part, Russia would be able to collect some of the debts it provided to the Syrian regime, reduce its losses, and make up for some of them. In the light of this, Russia has always viewed the return of the Syrian refugees as a necessary starting point for reconstruction.

The international situation, especially with the presence of a new Democratic US administration, has contributed to motivating the Russians to start implementing the track of the return/repatriation of refugees. Perhaps Moscow will find new cards through which to support its negotiating position with both the US and European sides, especially in the light of the continuation of the bargaining scenario between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran, and the start of shedding light on the Syrian situation before the 2021 presidential elections in Syria, in addition to the prolonged military intervention of Russia in this country, and the possibility that it would cause more losses for the Russian side if the conflict is protracted and disputes escalate over the form of the solution in Syria among the international actors.

Conclusion

  • Russia seeks to use the issue of the return of Syrian refugees in order to pressure the Europeans and Americans to accept getting involved in the reconstruction phase and isolate the latter from the requirement of completing the political solution in accordance with UNSC Resolution 2254, in a way that would enable it to withdraw funds under this banner to support the ailing economy of the Damascus government.
  • Russia is facing economic pressures due to its continued support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad without the presence of international actors supporting it. This drives Russia to activate the issue of the return of refugees as a message to Washington and Brussels that it is ready for rapprochement with them through the Syrian refugee gateway.
  • The EU and US refusal to contribute to the process of rebuilding what the war in Syria has destroyed may be discontinued if Russia takes more serious steps towards the success of the political process in this country.

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