Rus­sian refugee re­turn plan: Dead in the wa­ter or just a dream?

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - ANAL­Y­SIS By Ti­mour Azhari

BEIRUT: Le­banon doesn’t have much to show for an ini­tia­tive an­nounced by Rus­sia in July to fa­cil­i­tate the re­turn of Syr­ian refugees from the re­gion and Europe.

But has the plan been stalled by lo­cal and re­gional is­sues, or was it al­ways a non­starter?

Care­taker Min­is­ter of State for Refugee Af­fairs Mouin Mere­hbi thinks the lat­ter.

He re­cently told The Daily Star that the ini­tia­tive had been a “dream” that Rus­sia has been and will con­tinue to be un­able to trans­late into re­al­ity.

“It seems the Rus­sians had a dream one night and tried to re­al­ize it, but they weren’t able to,” Mere­hbi said.

“We do not see this as a real ini­tia­tive,” he added.

Pre­cisely how many refugees re­main in Le­banon is dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions refugee agency, roughly 950,000 refugees are reg­is­tered in the coun­try, down from over 1 mil­lion from when the agency stopped reg­is­ter­ing new ar­rivals in 2015.

But Le­banese of­fi­cials have said there could be as many as 1.5 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees still in Le­banon, cit­ing the high num­ber of un­reg­is­tered in­di­vid­u­als.

The sheer scale of the task aside, Moscow would have a hard time con­vinc­ing refugees that it could guar­an­tee their safety once back home, Mere­hbi said.

Rus­sia has been a party to the 7year-old Syr­ian war since it en­tered the con­flict in 2015 on Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s side.

Ac­cord­ing to Mere­hbi, about 20 Syr­i­ans who re­turned home have been killed upon their re­turn.

How­ever, some have cast doubt on the verac­ity of his claim, not­ing it is un­cor­rob­o­rated.

Soon after the ini­tia­tive was an­nounced, fol­low­ing a meet­ing in Helsinki be­tween Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Moscow said over 1.7 mil­lion Syr­ian refugees would be able to re­turn to Syria un­der the plan.

That in­cluded a pos­si­ble 890,000 from Le­banon, with most of the oth­ers com­ing from Turkey and Europe. About 30,000 Syr­i­ans who had fought in Syria seek to re­main in Le­banon, the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment said.

Le­banese of­fi­cials were ex­cited about the prospect of Rus­sia work­ing to help re­solve the refugee cri­sis.

The is­sue has caused a tense rift in Le­banon be­tween those who urge di­rect talks with Da­m­as­cus to re­solve it, and those who op­pose co­or­di­nat­ing with As­sad’s regime un­til a po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict is reached.

So when the Rus­sians came along, they pro­vided a con­ve­nient go­b­e­tween and Le­banese politi­cians unan­i­mously pledged their sup­port.

Le­banese and Rus­sian fol­low-up com­mit­tees were formed in Septem­ber to co­or­di­nate on the ini­tia­tive.

The were staffed on the Le­banese side by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Army, Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, the For­eign Min­istry and Prime Min­is­ter-des­ig­nate Saad Hariri, and on the Rus­sian side by Am­bas­sador to Le­banon Alexan­der Zasyp­kin and po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials.

Zasyp­kin could not be reached for com­ment.

Few de­vel­op­ments have taken place since those com­mit­tees were formed, how­ever.

And while a steady trickle of refugee re­turns con­tin­ues to be fa­cil­i­tated by Gen­eral Se­cu­rity, even the most lib­eral es­ti­mates of how many Syr­i­ans have gone back in of­fi­cially or­ga­nized trips would be just a small frac­tion of those still re­sid­ing in Le­banon – tens of thou­sands com­pared with more than 1 mil­lion.

Still, many of­fi­cials dis­pute Mere­hbi’s as­sess­ment, cit­ing spe­cific road­blocks to large-scale re­turns rather than dis­miss­ing them on prin­ci­ple.

A Le­banese source close to the Rus­sian ini­tia­tive who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity told The Daily Star, “I dis­agree with Mere­hbi’s nega­tive point of view.”

They al­lowed that the 6-mon­thold Cab­i­net vac­uum had ham­pered Le­banon’s abil­ity to make the best of the ini­tia­tive.

“The po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ment [on how to deal with the is­sue at home] … doesn’t help,” the source said.

How­ever, they added that “the ini­tia­tive is se­ri­ous and the Rus­sians are go­ing for­ward with it, but it needs in­ter­na­tional agree­ment and a Cab­i­net in Le­banon.”

“The U.S. and Rus­sia would have to come to an agree­ment on the is­sue. The fact that Trump and Putin didn’t meet [on the side­lines of the re­cent G-20 Sum­mit] is not a pos­i­tive sign.”

The in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing the United States, has by and large been re­luc­tant to sup­port wide­spread refugee re­turns to Syria, main­tain­ing that a ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties in the coun­try and a po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment must come first.

Europe and the United Na­tions would also need to pro­vide fund­ing for the re­con­struc­tion of Syria, with­out which large-scale re­turns re­main un­likely, the source said.

Amal Abou Zeid, a former law­maker who sits on a Le­banese com­mit­tee to co­or­di­nate with Moscow, said the Rus­sian ini­tia­tive was “stuck” at the in­ter­na­tional level, “but that doesn’t mean there is no win­dow of dis­cus­sion with the Amer­i­cans. It’s just go­ing to take some time.”

“I’m hope­ful. It’s not dead yet, but it’s not go­ing at full pace due to po­lit­i­cal [dis­agree­ment],” he added.

Abou Zeid also dis­puted Mere­hbi’s as­sess­ment of the ini­tia­tive, say­ing it was “up and run­ning.”

He said that Rus­sia, be­cause of the na­ture of its re­la­tion­ship with As­sad’s gov­ern­ment, could guar­an­tee the safety of those re­turn­ing.

Abou Zeid also dis­missed the care­taker min­is­ter of state’s claim that 20 refugees had died upon their re­turn to Syria, not­ing that the al­le­ga­tion had not been con­firmed by any rep­utable or­ga­ni­za­tion, such as the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross.

“Cer­tain in­ci­dents may take place. If some­one has le­gal is­sues they may put them in jail. … Maybe some peo­ple are killed.

“I’m be­ing en­tirely open here. Some in­ci­dents will oc­cur, but not in large num­bers,” he said.

He also pointed to a de­ci­sion by the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment in Oc­to­ber to of­fer an amnesty to men who had de­serted the Syr­ian army or avoided mil­i­tary ser­vice.

The amnesty does not cover those who fought against the regime.

“The Rus­sians have been ac­tive in lob­by­ing Syria to change laws to fa­cil­i­tate re­turn,” he said, though he ac­knowl­edged much more still had to be done.

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