A refugee camp in Turkey (Seth J. Frantzman)
The Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation highlighted on July 18 that it is supporting refugees in Syria. On its webpage it has a new page devoted to a ‘Bulletin for Centre for Refugee Reception, Distribution and Settlement (July 20, 2018).’ Emphasis on resettlement of refugees comes in the wake of the Helsinki meeting. This is an important development in Syria as the conflict between the regime and the rebels begins to wind down in the south. The issue of refugees has potentially been destabilizing for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
This joint headquarters at the National Defense Management Center was established in oder to coordinate the refugee centre’s activities. It is located in Syria. On July 20, amid the regime’s success in the south and agreements that many remaining Syrian rebels in Quneitra would agree to reconciliation and some would go to Idlib, TASS put out a report about “More than 1.7 mln Syrian refugees are expected to return to their homes in the near future, Head of the Russian National Defense Management Center Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev said on Friday.”
“On some issues, as you could see at the press conference, we agreed, in particular, on some issues of settlement in Syria, in particular in the southern zone of de-escalation, in the Golan Heights,” Putin said.
The scale of the refugee crises is staggering. According to the Russian sources and estimates, which likely dovetail with Moscow’s regime ally, “as many as 76 settlements least affected by hostilities may accommodate 336,500 people, first and foremost, those returning from Lebanon and Jordan.” And a Russian general said that there are 6.9 million who have left Syria since 2011. “Most refugees are residing in Syria’s neighboring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq,” Mizintsev noted.
The real importance of Helsinki
The TASS account points a side of the Helsinki meeting with the US President that has not received much attention. “Agreements achieved by the Russian and US presidents at their summit in Helsinki have helped to make headway in that field, since taking them into account, [we] submitted detailed proposals to the US side for organization of the work on refugees’ return to pre-war residence,” Mizintsev said. There was discussion of a “joint group” regarding reconstruction that the US would be involved in. Specific proposals were sent on July 20 to the US regarding the return of refugees.
If there is widespread return of refugees that would seem to contradict fears that a new land law in Syria might lead to the confiscation of the land of up to 10 million Syrians, many of them affected by conflict. It would also change the perception that the war’s goal, at least for Iran and Assad, was demographic change. This is a big “if” because it is still unclear if the refugees will return or if talk about the refugees is just lip service to help improve the regime and Russia’s image and help infrastructure investment return.
On July 20 Benjamin Netanyahu also held a conversation with Putin about Syria. The contents of this discussion are unclear but it appears that Russia increasingly wants to play the role of main broker in Syria, both in discussions with the rebels, who agreed to surrender via a Moscow-brokered ceasefire. Russia also wants to arbitrate on the Golan and with the US, as well as with Turkey and Iran. Now it is also playing a key role in the refugee issue.