BEIRUT (AP) – Syria’s top diplomat on Monday said its doors are open for the safe return of refugees, accusing Western countries of taking advantage of the suffering of Syrians while pretending to care for their well-being.
Speaking in New York to the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad also called for the withdrawal of U.S. and Turkish troops from his war-ravaged nation, pledging to drive them out from Syria sooner or later.
He also said Syrian armed forces would continue fighting “terrorists” – the Syrian government’s catch-all word for its opponents – until every part of Syria is once again under government control.
“We will not succumb, no matter the pressure and lies and accusations against us,” he said.
Syria’s conflict started amid Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 and eventually devolved into an insurgency and civil war following a brutal military crackdown, resulting in one of the largest humanitarian catastrophes in the past century. The United Nations human rights chief said last week that her office has documented the deaths of more than 350,200 people – civilians and combatants – in the war over the last decade, while admitting the real number for those killed in the conflict is almost certainly far higher.
The war has also displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million, including 5 million who are refugees outside the country.
“We have made it clear that Syria’s doors are wide open for the safe and voluntary return of all refugees to their country,” Mekdad said, adding that the government was putting the necessary procedures in place to facilitate the return of people and meet their basic needs.
He said while the Syrian government and its allies are making honest efforts on this humanitarian issue, “some continue to take advantage of the suffering of Syrians to serve an agenda that has nothing to do with humanitarian objectives or the interests of Syrians.”
His words sharply contradicted with the view of Syria experts, human rights organizations and some foreign governments who say that forced conscription, indiscriminate detentions and forced disappearances continue. In a report published earlier this month, Amnesty International said that a number of Syrian refugees who returned home have been subjected to detention, disappearance and torture at the hands of Syrian security forces, proving that it still isn’t safe to return to any part of the country.
In government-controlled areas – including in the suburbs of Damascus and many parts of central Syria previously held by opposition rebels – the security situation has stabilized, but entire neighborhoods are destroyed and many people have no houses to return to. Basic services such as water and electricity are poor to nonexistent.
Mekdad was addressing the General Assembly for the first time. He was appointed foreign minister in November, after the death of longtime diplomat Walid Moallem, who traveled to New York every year to address the General Assembly.
Mekdad denounced the presence of Turkish and U.S. forces in northern Syria, calling their presence illegal and a flagrant violation of international law.
He was referring to hundreds of U.S. troops stationed in eastern Syria and working with Kurdish-led fighters in battling the militant Islamic State group, as well as Turkish forces in northern Syria. Turkey has supported and funded Syrian opposition fighters against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Mekdad vowed to push them out, but did not say how the Syrian government planned to do that.
“Just as we managed to wipe out terrorists from most of Syria, we will work to end the occupation with the same resolve and determination, using all possible means under international law,” he said.