Representatives of Russia, Iran, Venezuela, China, Lebanon, and Iraq attend a two-day meeting about facilitating the return of millions of refugees. Turkey hosts the most Syrian refugees and has not been invited.

Syria regime leader Bashar al Assad (on screen) addresses via video link the opening session of the conference on the return of refugees, in Damascus on November 11, 2020.
Syria regime leader Bashar al Assad (on screen) addresses via video link the opening session of the conference on the return of refugees, in Damascus on November 11, 2020. (AFP)

Syrian regime has kicked off a two-day Russia-backed conference in capital Damascus towards facilitating the return of millions of Syrian refugees to the war-torn country, despite reservations within the international community.

Of neighbouring countries hosting the bulk of Syrian refugees, only Lebanon and Iraq sent representatives, according to organisers.

Other attendees included a Russian delegation and representatives of Syrian regime allies Iran, Venezuela and China, while a United Nations representative was expected to attend as an observer.

"Millions of Syrians want to return," regime leader Bashar al Assad said in a televised speech held in a giant hall in Damascus.

But a huge amount of "infrastructure has been destroyed after being built over decades, and terrorism continues in some areas," he said, using his blanket term for rebels and militants.

Assad said Western sanctions targeting his regime were also "depriving the country of the simplest means for reconstruction".

Critics say the time is not ripe yet for the return of refugees, insisting the first priority should be to make it safe for people to go back to the war-torn country.

Russia's special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev addresses the opening session of the international conference.
Russia's special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev addresses the opening session of the international conference. (AFP)

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 favour. 

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

Since Syria's conflict started in 2011, more than half of its pre-war population has been forced to flee their homes, including 5.5 million who went abroad.

Neighbouring Turkey hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees, followed by Lebanon and Jordan.

Jordan did not attend the conference, while Turkey was not invited.

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Syria still unsafe 

The European Union said on Tuesday it would also not attend, as the situation in Syria was not yet safe for returns.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the Syria regime's priority must be "to create conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of refugees" in line with guidance from the UN refugee agency.

After a series of military victories in recent years, Assad's forces control more than 70 percent of Syria, while the remaining areas are held by US-backed PKK/YPG terrorists as well as opposition rebels and militants.

Russia, the main ally of the Assad's regime, has for years sought to garner international support to reconstruct Syria and allow for refugee returns.

But rights groups have warned that many areas lack the necessary infrastructure or remain unsafe.

Western nations led by the United States have conditioned their help on a political settlement to the conflict.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies