Iran and Russia have pledged their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the United States extended its sanctions against the leader’s government in Damascus.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his Syrian counterpart in a virtual telephone conversation on Monday, emphasizing Moscow’s “intensive efforts to facilitate a long-term solution in Syria and to restore its sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity” after almost a decade of civil war.
The Russian leader praised the progress made through his country’s engagement with his Assad colleague Iran and Turkey, which supports the opposition forces. Thanks to their joint efforts, Putin said, “the hotbed of international terrorism in Syria has been almost completely eliminated; the level of violence has decreased significantly,” according to a Kremlin readout.
He warned, however, that a “humanitarian catastrophe” was continuing and that priority must be given to facilitating the return of refugees, the theme of a two-day international conference scheduled to begin on Wednesday in Damascus.
According to the United Nations, more than five and a half million people have fled due to the multilateral war in Syria and over six million have been displaced. While Moscow and Tehran have helped the Syrian armed forces and their allies to control much of the battlefield, a fragile ceasefire with the insurgent-held idlib in the northwest and a loose security agreement with the mostly Kurdish Syrian democratic forces in the northeast have divided the country.
According to the latest bulletin of the Russian Ministry of Defense, published on Tuesday, there were 6,721,603 Syrian refugees in 43 countries on October 7. Of these people, 1,297,168 from 15 countries “expressed the desire to return to their homeland”.
Since Russia entered the conflict at the end of September 2015, the Bulletin reported that 855,132 Syrians have already returned from abroad, including 256,602 women and 435,831 children, while 1,335,051 internally displaced persons have returned to their permanent homes.
The United Nations and Western officials warned that the refugees would return soon, before conditions in the country improved, and emphasized the principle of voluntary rather than forced repatriation as the Syrian government attempts to re-establish itself on the international stage.
Accusations of war crimes have also led to sanctions against Damascus, especially from Washington, where on the same day Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions against a national militia and several high-ranking personalities in response to alleged abuses.
“The Assad regime has a choice: either it takes irrevocable steps towards a peaceful solution to this conflict, which has lasted almost ten years, or further crippling sanctions are threatened,” Pompeo said in his statement.
Also on Monday, James Jeffrey, who served both as U.S. Special Envoy to Syria and as Ambassador to the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, resigned amid a spate of impeachments following the apparent loss of President Donald Trump’s election, a defeat that the incumbent leader denied.
“Ambassador Jeffrey helped build and maintain an international coalition that greatly increased the economic and political pressure on the Assad regime,” Pompeo said. “He played a pioneering role in the implementation of Caesar’s law and other Syrian sanctions that deprive the Syrian regime of the means it uses to wage war and commit mass atrocities against the Syrian people.
In his conversation with Putin, Assad said that the continued rebel presence and increasing U.S. sanctions have hampered his efforts to encourage the return of those who fled the war-torn country.
“Terrorists are still holding some regions of our country, and Syria and its people are under an economic blockade,” he said, condemning the “Western embargo.
On the same day, the Kremlin’s special envoy to the Middle East and African countries, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, received the Syrian ambassador in Moscow, Riyadh Haddad.
The two discussed the “need to mobilize international efforts to provide assistance in restoring the socio-economic infrastructure of the Syrian Arab Republic as well as in returning Syrian refugees to their homes,” as stated in a reading by the Russian Foreign Ministry