On November 25, the Russian state news agency TASS published an article headlined: “U.S. is capable of solving Syria’s refugee issues, Russian military official says.”
“The United States has capabilities to join an effort on solving the issue of Syrian refugees, but Washington prefers to ignore and criticize Russian and Syrian efforts, Head of Russia’s National Defense Management Center Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev said on Wednesday,” the article states.
The general is quoted as saying:
"Recognizing the important role of the United States and its capability to solve regional issues, Syria and Russia have offered the US side to use the Damascus platform with a high status and expert representation for taking part in a joint effort. The answer was no and there was unfounded criticism of those who are really contributing to returning Syrian citizens back home."
That is misleading.
The “Damascus platform” and criticism to which Mizintsev referred is the Russia-sponsored conference on refugee returns that took place in Damascus on November 11.
The United States and other countries refused to participate in the conference, but the TASS article doesn’t say why. Russia has backed the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the civil war that broke out in 2011 amid the Arab Spring protests which swept the Middle East.
The U.S. signaled its refusal to participate after the conference was first proposed on October 29. According to the Associated Press, U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills complained that the conference was not being organized via the United Nations, and that the U.S. did not believe the Russian military was a “credible host” for a discussion on the refugees.
A number of other countries boycotted the conference, most notably European Union member states, some of which have been main destinations for Syrians fleeing the conflict. Turkey, which has taken the largest number of Syrian refugees since the conflict began in 2011, was not invited to participate. Jordan, another neighbor of Syria that has taken in many Syrian refugees, did not participate.
Another reason why many nations refused to participate is that the conference focused on getting refugees to return to regime-controlled territory - something refugees are wary of, for good reason. Returning to government-controlled territory carries the risk of harassment, arrest and torture.
In 2019, the Washington Post reported that at least 2,000 Syrians who returned to regime-controlled territory had been detained. Other returnees reported that they were harassed by security forces, who also attempted to conscript male returnees into the Syrian army, which is still fighting on several fronts. Refugees who remain outside the country say they do not trust the Assad regime, whose actions were the primary reason many fled in the first place.
In 2019, the United Nations reported that as many as 100,000 Syrians had been detained, abducted or gone missing during the eight-year war. The conflict is believed to have caused over 400,000 deaths since it began in 2011.
The United States currently has only about 500 military personnel in Syria, located primarily in the northeast of the country. The bulk of U.S. military forces in Syria were initially deployed to help the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against Islamic State.
However, the Islamic State’s territory in Syria was finally captured in early 2019, and in October that year the Trump administration announced the withdrawal of 1,000 troops.