Syria's ambassador to Lebanon has called for Syrian refugees to return home and for the countries hosting them to ease the transition.
Ali Abdul Karim told Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil during a meeting on Thursday that certain agreements were being followed up on to help Syrian refugees return, according to a statement released by the minister's office.
Lebanon and Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, announced after talks last week that they would form a joint committee to facilitate repatriation of Syrian refugees.
“We discussed the Russian initiative, and the positive moves taken towards the Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Europe. The initiative will help ease their return, especially since President Bashar Al Assad is not issuing any barriers to that,” Mr Karim said.
The ambassador's meeting with Mr Bassil was a rare direct contact between Syrian and Lebanese officials, underlining the desire on both sides to see Syrians return home now that Mr Al Assad's government has regained control of most of the country after years of conflict triggered by an uprising against him in 2011.
Nearly one million Syrians are registered with the UN in Lebanon, but some officials claim their number is as high as 1.5 million. With the country hosting the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide, Lebanese officials are keen for Syrians to return home.
“The minister Bassil assured me that more Syrians are interested in returning to their homes that are not overrun by terrorists, which makes up the majority of the land in Syria now," the Syrian ambassador said.
“They come to the embassy and say they want to return, and we tell them there is nothing holding them back, and that Syria needs its sons and daughters now, and welcomes them by easing their return,” he said.
According to UN figures, more than 5 million Syrians have fled the country — roughly a quarter of the pre-war population.
One deterrent for Syrians hoping to go home is the fear of being drafted into compulsory military service, which requires Syrians between 18-49 to serve between one and three years. But the ambassador said moves are being made to waive that law for returnees.
“President Al Assad issued more than one amnesty decree for every person who fled, escaped, or escaped from prison,” he said.
Those who have spent more than four years out of Syria or have special circumstances can pay a fee to waive their compulsory military service.
Mr Karim said the military was in control of the captured areas, adding that normal life had returned and the industries have begun working in many areas. “That will encourage those to return,” he said.
“Syria is in need of hands, and of expertise that is in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and Egypt and all other countries. And it needs investment in the country, and the Syrians have the right to rebuild what the terrorists destroyed.
“Syria was a country that was above many in the world, a country with a unique environment where religions have their freedom. The wagers the US, Israel and foreign forces took to topple Syria, that is confident in its victory today, and the terrorists, of whom some still remain in Idlib or other areas in Deir Ezzor, all those wagers they placed on us is out of the question now.”
Mr Karim said the Syrian embassy was open to the Lebanese authorities and the president “24 hours" and that "the foreign ministries are open for co-operation”.
“All initiatives have to pass through us first, otherwise it would not be right, and therefore this is a call for all Syrians. Those who don’t have anything to hold them back from heading towards Syria’s borders, all Syria’s cities are waiting for its children. Any small issues can be dealt with between the two countries, Lebanon and Syria. The financial penalties must be lifted … when they are raised, the main barrier to return is raised, then Syrians will begin coming back," the ambassador said.
“Of course there is a benefit to Jordan and Lebanon in opening the borders, and I think consultation is going on, and those who have done Syria wrong and their countries, that needs more investigation."