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ASSAD : “Syrian refugees should return to the country”

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and his wife Asma (L) arrive at the Elysee palace on July 14, 2008 in Paris, to attend the traditional garden party as part the celebration of the Bastille Day. France kicked off Bastille Day celebrations in a whirlwind of controversy as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad joined dozens of leaders to watch the Champs-Elysees avenue military parade. AFP PHOTO DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP via Getty Images)

The Syrian government is working to secure the return of millions of refugees who fled the war in their country, but Western sanctions are hindering the work of state institutions, complicating those plans, President Bashar Assad said Wednesday.

His comments came at the opening session of a Russia-organized two-day international conference in Damascus on the return of refugees. The event is being boycotted by many Arab and Western countries and has been criticized by the U.N. and the U.S. who say the time is not ripe yet for the return of refugees.

They insist the first priority should be to make it safe for people to go back to the war-torn country.

Assad’s forces have recaptured much of Syria, with the backing of his allies Russia and Iran, which helped tip the balance of power in his favor. But large areas remain outside government control, mainly in the north near the border with Turkey.

The conflict that began with anti-government protests in March 2011 as part of the region’s Arab Spring, quickly morphed into a civil war.

Tuesday’s conference was held in a giant hall with participants, most of them wearing masks, observing social distancing because of the coronavirus. Many countries were invited but only 27 agreed to participate, including neighboring Lebanon and Iraq which host large numbers of Syrian refugees, according to state TV.

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