Syrians scorn 'manipulative' Assad refugee conference
The Damascus conference, which took place on Wednesday, was rejected by most of the international community and was only attended by representatives from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela and China, although a United Nations representative was expected to attend the conference as an observer.
"Millions of Syrians want to return," Assad said.
However, he claimed that Syrian refugees are being "pressured" and "intimidated" by their host countries to stay in order to obtain international aid.
Mikhail Mezentsev, head of the Russian-Syrian Coordination Center for the Return of Refugees, pledged $1 billion for the reconstruction of electrical networks, industries and other civilian purposes at the conference.
He said Russian ministries are pushing projects in a number of important fields, such as education and medicine, investment of natural resources and housing construction, trade, economy and scientific and technical cooperation.
"The biggest detrimental factor for refugees' return is the rule of Assad regime that threatens all aspects of life," Syrian human rights activist Reem Assil told The New Arab.
"Syrian refugees around the world watch with horror how different crises in Syria are been dealt with by the regime, from the financial crisis and the currency collapse, to the health crisis and the response to Covid-19, to the environmental crisis and the Syrian forests burning, and the list goes on," she added.
Assil urged that as long as Syria remains in state it currently is due to years of war, no refugee will feel safe enough to return.
"No one will want to go back to a country with endless disasters caused by an inefficient regime that failed to offer any sound solutions to a growing list of pressing problems over the last decade."
Syrian activists and lawyers deplored the conference and branded it hypocritical, maniplative and one that emboldens the racism of Europe's far-right anti-refugee sentiments.
Read also: Crammed into unsanitary camps, displaced Syrians fear spread of coronavirus
"Assad and Russia held today a conference in Damascus called "The refugees' return", they still living in unbelievable denying they still not accepting that 10 million refugees left the country because of Assad. They still think someone will buy their lying and their propaganda," said Syrian human rights defender Asaad Hanna on Twitter.
Human rights lawyer Laila Alodaat slammed the refugee conference as an attempt to whitewash the systematic human rights abuses by the Assad regime and to manipulate vulnerable victims of war.
"The arguments presented by the Syrian government in this conference are consistent with their ongoing standing and practices, including consistent human rights violations against civilians, the systematic use of detention and torture and the manipulation and the politicisation of international aid," she told The New Arab.
"This is one of many attempts to abuse and manipulate the ongoing suffering of the most vulnerable civilians to combat the few international measures put in place to hold the Syrian regime accountable for its abuses, for example, the sanctions."
Pandering to Europe's far-right
"It is also, once more, trying to reason with populist right wing anti-immigrant voices in Europe to suggest that refugees are making the death trips for financial gains rather than to flee eminent threat to their lives and livelihood", Alodaat added.
Assad's remarks that it is safe for refugees to return to war-torn Syria are often echoed by far-right politicians in Europe – many of whom have links to Russia, including top officials in the UK's anti-migrant Brexit Party.
Arron Banks, one of the largest donors to the Leave campaign and a close friend of right-wing populist activist Nigel Farage met with Russian officials .
France's National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen - and her father Jean Marie - has also been linked to Russia.
During her presidential campaign in 2017, Le Penn assured Russian President Vladimir Putin that she would work to lift EU sanctions on Moscow if elected.
Both, amongst some of their other European counterparts, have echoed the Assad regime and Russia's claims that it is safe for Syrian refugees to return home.