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 7-year-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 go-between 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-month-old 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 the Lebanese committee that coordinates 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.