US-Russia cooperation could ensure safer repatriation of Syrian refugees
As American policymakers begin to learn more details about the summit between Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki, a proposal has emerged to jointly collaborate on a humanitarian plan to address the massive Syrian refugee problem.
The Russians signaled that they would like to work with the Americans in drawing up a joint action plan to bring Syrian refugees back to the homes they fled before the civil war broke out in 2011. “The active advancement in this direction has been helped by the agreements reached by the presidents of Russia and the United States during the summit in Helsinki,” Mikhail Mizintsev, a Russian ministry official, was quoted by TASS as saying. Mizintsev said preliminary assessments indicate 890,000 refugees soon could return to Syria from Lebanon, 300,000 from Turkey and 200,000 from European Union countries.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed such a discussion, saying, “There was a discussion between President Trump and President Putin about the resolution in Syria and how we might get the refugees back.” The United Nations, however, is hesitant to declare Syria safe for the refugees to return. The United States rightly agrees, and is cautious about fully embracing any plan until it has some guarantee of the safety of returning Syrians.
During a recent visit to Lebanon, the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) met with the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and returned with the belief that this is a problem beyond the mandate of UNHCR — a higher level of political cooperation is required to move repatriation forward.
Depending on their situation, some refugees want to return home, and could do so safely, but many others find it too dangerous to go back now. The UNHCR is adept at protecting refugees, ensuring that those who are vulnerable understand the consequences of returning, have the correct paperwork to re-enter their homes, and have the support necessary to restart their lives. But the UNHCR is not mandated to get involved in geopolitical issues.
Some Lebanese officials believe it is important to engage with Syria at a higher political level to assess when and how refugees can return home. Others, including the United States, view such an engagement as acquiescing to the Syrian government’s claim that the civil war has ended and it is safe for refugees to return.
It is important for U.S. influence in the Middle East that it remain a principal party in examining the refugee situation and determining a safe process for their eventual repatriation. It would not be in America’s interest to sit on the sidelines while the Russians and Syria’s neighbors devise a plan to alleviate the problem without U.S. input.
Because direct engagement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government by Lebanon is fraught with potential problems, and the UNHCR is not politically empowered to deal with the situation, the best alternative falls on Russia and the United States. Notwithstanding Russia’s potential ulterior motives for proposing it, and the disagreements between our countries on other Syrian matters, the discussion at the Helsinki summit indicates an understanding of the importance of U.S.-Russia involvement in this humanitarian problem.
The time to repatriate refugees may be debatable, but the time to begin the process is not. A U.S.-Russia effort should start by identifying those who are capable of returning to Syria, determining how to ensure their safety, and the timing for their repatriation. Without U.S. engagement, Russia would have another opportunity to curry favor in the region and place another wedge between the United States and Syria’s neighbors.
Now is the time for the United States to initiate a process that allows it to influence — and, ultimately, guarantee — the safe return of Syrian refugees.
Edward M. Gabriel is president of the American Task Force for Lebanon and former U.S. ambassador to Morocco (1997-2001).