Syrian government officials vowed Monday to ensure the safe return of refugees and urged Western countries to encourage the process by lifting sanctions.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the refugees' return is a top priority for Damascus, adding that "the Syrian government will facilitate their return by all means." He added that the country would welcome any foreign assistance, provided it comes with no preconditions.
Public Administration Minister Hussein Makhlouf said authorities are working to rebuild hospitals, schools and other infrastructure to help accommodate refugees.
President Bashar al-Assad's forces, with Russian air support, have won a series of victories in recent months against opposition fighters, who are now mainly confined to the northern Idlib province. The fighting is over in much of the country, but many of the more than 5 million refugees fear mandatory conscription or reprisal from government forces if they return. Others have nowhere to go after their homes and businesses were destroyed.
Speaking to international reporters in Damascus, Makhlouf claimed that the government has restored more than 5,000 schools and 250 hospitals, and that about 3.5 million internally displaced people have regained their homes in Syria.
"The return of refugees is a necessary condition for the country's rebuilding and development," he said.
Makhlouf called on Western countries to lift an economic embargo imposed early in the seven-year conflict that was aimed at pressuring Assad to step down, noting that it would help restore the Syrian economy and encourage the refugees' return.
His statement echoed calls by Russian officials, who urged the U.S. and its Western allies to provide humanitarian assistance to Syria and help rebuild its economy.
The Russian military in Syria set up a mechanism to help settle issues related to the refugees' return. Moscow, which has provided crucial military support to Assad, is eager to show that the situation in Syria is normalizing now that the government has recaptured most opposition strongholds.
Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, said he would be visiting Syria in "a few days" to assess the situation for displaced people.
"We think that it's premature to promote returns. Syria is still very insecure, there's still a lot of war going on in Syria," he said Monday, after meeting with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin. "If some people decide, they make their own personal voluntary choice, we need to see how we can support them. But I think it's premature to think of a mass repatriation program."
Speaking to reporters on a trip to Syria organized by the Russian Defense Ministry, Maj. Ruslan Nigmatulin said that Russian military officers are working with Syrian authorities to help settle organizational, medical and other problems faced by refugees.
Nigmatulin, who is in charge of one of the five checkpoints set up on the border with Lebanon to facilitate refugees' return, said that about 5,000 Syrians have come back to the country since the checkpoints opened Aug. 1. He said those who lack IDs and other documents are quickly issued new ones by Syrian officials stationed at the checkpoints.