Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
1 / 3
Syria's President Bashar Assad is seen on screen as he speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
2 / 3
Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
3 / 3
Ali-Ashgar Khaji, senior aide to Iran's foreign minister, speaks during the international conference on the return of Syrian refugees in Damascus on Nov. 11, 2020. (SANA/Handout via REUTERS)
Short Url
Updated 13 November 2020

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’

Russia-backed conference on Syrian refugees dismissed as ‘dog and pony show’
  • US State Department officials describe it as a distraction that is using millions of refugees as ‘political pawns’

NEW YORK: The US State Department on Thursday dismissed as a distraction a Russian-backed conference in Damascus that called for the return of millions of Syrian refugees to the war-ravaged country.

Richard Albright, deputy assistant secretary at the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, said it is no more than a show that bears no relation to the grim reality of the situation in Syria.

Joel Rayburn, the US special envoy for Syria, said the conference was “just a dog and pony show meant to distract from the fact that the Russians and the Assad regime have not done what the international community has been pressing them to do, which is to end the war and move to a political solution under UN Security Council resolution 2254.”

During the joint briefing, Albright also accused Russia and the Syrian regime of using refugees as “political pawns” to lend legitimacy to the regime. 

“This blatant disregard for the lives at stake is reprehensible,” he said, pointing out that the position of the UN is that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive to the safe and sustainable return of refugees.

“The few returns that have taken place have all too often been met with secondary displacement, continued dependence on international assistance and, in some cases, forced conscription, detention, forced disappearances and other human-rights violations,” Albright added.

“Displaced Syrians know this, and that’s why they’re not going back.”

The briefing came as the conference in Damascus entered its second day, with the aim of facilitating the return home of millions of people displaced by the Civil War. Syrian President Bashar Assad said in a televised speech that they “want to return home” but fear “terrorists and jihadists.”

Since the war began in 2011, more than half of the Syrian people have fled their homes. Millions are now refugees in other countries.

Albright said that a million Syrians were displaced by a regime offensive between December 2019 and February this year. This was “a pace of displacement faster than at any other time in the nine-year conflict,” he added,

“The Syrian government has a choice,” said Rayburn. “They can either take irreversible steps toward a peaceful resolution of this nearly decade-long conflict, or they can face further crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation.”

On Nov. 9, the US administration implemented the fifth tranche of its Caesar Act sanctions, targeting Syrian military commanders, MPs, senior government figures and financiers. A total of 94 individuals and entities have been blacklisted since the first sanctions were announced in June.

The Caesar Act attracted overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress, where it was backed by more than 500 of the 535 members. 

“There’s a bipartisan mandate for the Syria policy that we have been executing, and that is unlikely to change,” Rayburn said. 

Delegates at the conference in Damascus included representatives of 27 countries, including Iran, Venezuela and China. The UN and its organizations were not represented, nor were any of the major refugee-hosting countries. 

“Some of the countries that joined (the conference) are the same ones that continue to kill and injure civilians in Syria, forcing millions to flee,” said Rayburn. “These countries falsely suggested that Syria is now safe for refugees to return.

“Russia and the Assad regime in particular are seeking to raise funds for rebuilding a Syria that they themselves are responsible for destroying, while the Assad regime continues to fund military operations — at many millions of dollars a month — against its own citizens, and the Syrian regime is continuing to disappear Syrians who do return to areas under the regime’s control.”

Asked by Arab News what effects the US sanctions are having on the Syrian regime, Albright said they have damaged its “ability to mask the resources that it’s been using to attack and keep a stranglehold on the Syrian people.”

He added: “The impact has been quite deep on the Assad regime; the leaders at the top are desperate to get out from under the sanctions’ pressure. They are worried that it will continue to build.”

Rayburn said the US campaign of political and economic pressure is being carried out in concert with the EU, and vowed that the diplomatic and economic isolation of the Syrian regime will continue until a political solution is implemented, based on UN Security Council resolutions.

“We simply think you can’t have political reconciliation without accountability for what has happened,” he added. “Until there’s accountability and justice, there cannot be meaningful discussions around refugee returns.”

Rayburn also warned that “any attempt to reestablish or upgrade relations with the Syrian regime without addressing (its) atrocities undercuts efforts to promote accountability and move toward a lasting, peaceful and political solution to the Syrian conflict.”


Security Council members approve choice of new UN envoy to Libya

Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
Updated 16 January 2021

Security Council members approve choice of new UN envoy to Libya

Jan Kubis, the recently appointed UN special envoy to Libya. (Reuters file photo)
  • Veteran Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis will be secretary-general Antonio Guterres’s representative to the country
  • Glimmers of hope for Libyans as progress reported at first meeting of Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s advisory committee

NEW YORK: Security Council members on Friday approved the appointment of veteran Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis as the UN’s special envoy to Libya.

It came as UN officials said significant progress has been made in Geneva this week during the inaugural meeting of the advisory committee for the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres nominated Kubis to be his envoy, a position that has been vacant since early March last year, when Ghassan Salameh resigned due to stress after less than three years in the job.

A number of replacements were suggested but members of the Security Council failed to agree on one. In December they overcame their differences and approved the choice of Bulgarian diplomat Nikolai Mladenov — only for him to surprise everyone by turning down the offer for “personal and family reasons.”

Kubis is currently the UN’s Special Coordinator for Lebanon. He previously held similar positions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric hailed what the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) described as significant progress during the first meeting of the LPDF’s advisory committee, which began in Geneva on Jan. 13 and concludes on Jan. 16.

“The mission hopes shortly they will be able to narrow down the major differences and reach near consensus on many of the contentious issues concerning the selection-mechanism proposals,” Dujarric said.

The formation of the advisory committee was announced on Jan. 3. Its 18 members, including women, young people and cultural figures, were chosen to reflect the country’s wide geographical and political diversity.

The secretary-general’s acting special representative for Libya, Stephanie Williams, had indicated that the main task for the committee would be to deliberate on the contentious issues that have plagued the selection of a unified executive authority. The aim is to develop solid recommendations the LPDF can consider in line with the political roadmap agreed by its 75 members during their first round of talks in Tunis last year.

This roadmap represents a rights-based process designed to culminate in democratic and inclusive national elections Dec. 24 this year. The date is also that of Libya’s 70th Independence Day. The elections will mark the end of the transitional phase for the country and chart a new way forward.

“This unwavering achievement, this date to return the sovereign decision to its rightful owners, is our top priority,” said Williams in her opening remarks at the advisory committee meeting in Geneva this week.

She also rejected claims that UNSMIL will have any say in the selection of the new executive authority. “This is a Libyan-Libyan decision,” Williams said, adding that the interim authority is intended to “shoulder the responsibility in a participatory manner and not on the basis of power-sharing, as some believed.”

She added: “We want a participatory formula where there is no victor, no vanquished; a formula for coexistence for Libyans of various origins for a specific period of time until we pass on the torch.

UNSMIL spokesman Jean Alam said the Geneva talks have already overcome some major hurdles. This builds on the political accomplishments since the Tunis meeting at which a consensus was reached on the political roadmap, the eligibility criteria for positions in the unified executive authority, and the authority’s most important prerogative: setting a date for the elections.

He also reported “very encouraging progress” in military matters since the signing of a ceasefire agreement in October by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC), the members of which include five senior officers selected by the Government of National Accord and five selected by the Libyan National Army.

“This includes the recent exchanges of detainees conducted under the JMC’s supervision, as part of wider confidence-building measures; the resumption of flights to all parts of Libya; the full resumption of oil production and export; as well as the proposed unification and restructuring of the Petroleum Facilities Guards, in addition to the ongoing serious talks on the opening of the coastal road between Misrata and Sirte, which we hope will take place very soon,” said Alam.

He also hailed “promising developments” relating to the economy, including the recent unification of the exchange rate by the Central Bank of Libya, a step that requires the formation of a new authority for it to be implemented.

“The recent meeting between the ministries of finance was an important effort to unify the budget and allocate sufficient funding to improve services and rebuild Libya’s deteriorating infrastructure, particularly the electrical grid,” Alam said.

“All of these reforms are steps that will bring national institutions together to work in establishing a more durable and equitable economic arrangement.”

Williams added that without a unified executive authority, it would difficult to implement these steps.