Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Wednesday that the biggest obstacle to millions of refugees returning home is a lack of infrastructure, devastated by more than a decade of civil war.
The Syria conflict has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and battered the country’s infrastructure and industry since it began in 2011 with the government’s repression of peaceful anti-government protests.
The war pulled in foreign powers and jihadists, and while the front lines have mostly quietened in recent years, large parts of the country’s north remain outside government control.
Asked during an interview with Abu Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia television about the greatest challenge to refugee returns, Assad responded: “Logistically, infrastructure which terrorists destroyed”.
“We have started general dialogue” with United Nations humanitarian bodies “on return projects”, financing and UN demands, said Assad, citing a lack of water, electricity, schools and health care facilities.
Assad, who refers to all those opposed to the government as “terrorists”, has seen increased engagement with Middle East countries this year.
Syria was readmitted to the Arab League in May, ending more than a decade of regional isolation during which some powers bet on his demise.
Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt host at least 5.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations, and refugee returns have been a key issue at recent regional discussions.
But as countries have increased calls for refugees to return, rights groups warned against forced returns and raised safety fears, saying some returnees have faced arrest or persecution, allegations which Assad denied in the interview.
Regional countries are also seeking cooperation from Damascus on issues including fighting the drug trade.
“When there is war and the state is weakened,” the drug trade flourishes and “this is normal”, Assad said.
“The countries that contributed to creating chaos in Syria bear the responsibility for this, not the Syrian state,” he added.
An AFP investigation last year found that Syria has become a narco state, with the $10 billion captagon industry dwarfing all other exports and funding both Assad and many of his enemies.
The Syrian president pointed to dialogue between Damascus and Arab officials on fighting the drug trade.
“We have a shared interest in eliminating this phenomenon,” he said, during his rare interview with a Middle Eastern media outlet.
Arab outreach to Assad gained momentum this year after a deadly February 6 earthquake struck Syria and Turkey, and accelerated as regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore bilateral ties the following month in a surprise China-brokered deal.
Analysts say Assad is hoping wealthy Gulf states can help fund reconstruction, although Western sanctions are likely to deter investment, and broader international funding remains elusive without a UN-backed political settlement.
– Erdogan meeting ‘not possible’ –
Asked about mending ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long supported rebel groups in Syria’s north, Assad said: “Why should I meet Erdogan? To drink refreshments?”.
Erdogan and Assad had amicable relations in the 2000s but as war broke out, Turkey supported early rebel efforts to topple the Syrian president.
Erdogan reversed course in past years as Damascus clawed back, with Russian and Iranian support, much of the territory it had lost to rebels early in the conflict.
But Assad has long said he will not meet Erdogan unless Turkish forces leave Syria, where they control parts of the north.
“Erdogan’s goal is to legitimise Turkish occupation in Syria. This is why a meeting is not possible under Erdogan’s conditions,” Assad said.
Twelve years of war have also strained Syria’s ties with Palestinian movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and was long one of Assad’s closest allies.
The Islamist group was headquartered in Damascus before the war but left Syria in 2012 after condemning the Assad government’s brutal suppression of protests.
Last year, Hamas said it had restored relations with the Syrian government after a visiting delegation met with Assad in Damascus.
But the Syrian president said that it was “too early” to speak of resuming normal ties with the group.
“For now, Hamas does not have offices in Damascus,” he added in the interview.