Russia lashed out at Western countries, accusing them of blocking UN aid for Syria’s reconstruction and trying to prevent the return of refugees
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after talks on Monday with his Lebanese counterpart, Gibran Bassil, the US’ refusal to provide assistance for rebuilding Syria after more than seven years of fighting would deter Syrians from returning to their homes.
Lavrov said the United Nations’ political affairs department last year sent out “a secret directive forbidding organisations belonging to [the UN] system from any project aimed at restoring the Syrian economy”.
Russia has been the chief backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helping his forces to regain control over most of the country. Now, Moscow is calling on Western countries, which backed the opposition, to help fund reconstruction efforts, saying it would reduce the flow of refugees and migrants to Western Europe.
Lavrov bristled at the US and its Western allies for making assistance to Syria contingent on a political transition process. He also accused the West of pressuring the United Nations to stay away from reconstruction efforts in Syria.
He said Moscow is looking into why the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, is dragging its feet on the reconstruction of world-famous archaeological sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra. He said the UN Secretariat’s political department has explicitly banned any involvement in reconstruction in Syria pending a political settlement.
Lavrov added he protested the move in a phone conversation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“It’s inadmissible when a group of countries manipulates secretariats of international organisations, which are supposed to be unbiased and independent,” Lavrov said.
“The UN was created on the basis of … equality of all countries. I strongly urge our Western partners to return to that principle and not try to covertly exploit international organisations.”
He also criticised recent comments by Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency, who said last week it was too soon to talk about the mass repatriation of the more than five million Syrian refugees.
Lavrov said the UNHCR should not be a “subsidiary of a group of Western countries”.
The Russian foreign minister also alleged that al-Qaeda fighters located near al-Tanf, in southeastern Syria where US military advisers are based, had launched raids intended to prevent refugees from returning from Jordan.
Bassil said Lebanon, which is hosting more than one million refugees, fully supports Russian efforts to help Syrians return.
“Lebanon supports the quick and safe return of Syrian refugees without any link to a political solution,” Bassil said. “The circumstances in Syria have changed and many areas are safe, and for that reason, there is no reason for the refugees to stay.”
Some Lebanese officials have pushed for speedy returns, but the UN and human rights groups say conditions are still not safe in Syria.
Bassil said also said Lebanon should serve as a platform for the economic revival of Syria, and ensured Beirut would coordinate its efforts with Moscow, Interfax news agency reported.
On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke about international reconstruction efforts and the humanitarian situation in Syria with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
“It’s important to help those areas that the refugees can return to,” said Putin, whose decision for Russia to militarily intervene in Syria’s conflict in 2015 tilted the odds in favour of Assad, who has regained large swaths of land from armed rebel groups.
“I think it’s in everyone’s interests, including Europe’s.”