Middle East

Syria ready for refugees to return, foreign minister tells UN

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The Syrian conflict is now in its eighth year, with more than 360,000 deaths and millions more uprooted from their homes over that time.

Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moualem, told the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday that the country was ready for the voluntary return of refugees who fled during the conflict.

"We welcome any assistance with reconstruction from those countries that were not part of the aggression on Syria," said al-Moualem, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister.

"The countries that offer only conditional assistance or continue to support terrorism, they are neither invited nor welcome to help."

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid Al-Moualem addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Walid Al-Moualem addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly.
AAP

He said the conditions were fine for them to return, and he blamed "some western countries" for "spreading irrational fears" that prompted refugees to stay away.

"We have called upon the international community and humanitarian organizations to facilitate these returns," he said. "They are politicizing what should be a purely humanitarian issue."

The United States and the European Union have warned that there will be no reconstruction aid for Syria until there is a political agreement between Assad and the opposition to end the war.

UN diplomats say a recent agreement between Russia and Turkey to set up a buffer zone in the last major rebel stronghold of Idlib has created an opportunity to press ahead with political talks.

Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, before their journey to their homes in Syria on 17 September 2018.
Syrian refugees gather as they prepare to leave Beirut, before their journey to their homes in Syria on 17 September 2018.
EPA

The Russian-Turkish deal averted a large-scale assault by Russian-backed Syrian forces on the province, where three million people live.

Moualem however stressed that the agreement had "clear deadlines" and expressed hope that military action will target jihadists including fighters from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, who "will be eradicated."

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura is hoping to soon convene the first meetings of a new committee comprised of government and opposition members to draft a post-war constitution for Syria and pave the way to elections.

Moualem laid out conditions for the Syrian government's participation in the committee, saying the panel's work should be restricted "to reviewing the articles of the current constitution," and warned against interference.

Syria calls on US, French, Turkish forces to withdraw immediately

Syria's foreign minister also denounced US, French and Turkish forces operating in his country as "occupying forces" and demanded that they leave immediately.

Moualem said the foreign forces were on Syrian soil illegally, under the pretext of fighting terrorism, and "will be dealt with accordingly."

"They must withdraw immediately and without any conditions," he told the assembly.

Moualem insisted that the "war on terror is almost over" in Syria, where more than 360,000 people have died since 2011, with millions more uprooted from their homes.

He said Damascus would continue "fighting this sacred battle until we purge all Syrian territories" of both terror groups and "any illegal foreign presence."

The United States has some 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly training and advising both Kurdish forces and Syrian Arabs opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.

France has more than 1,000 troops on the ground in the war-wracked country.

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