Russia’s defence ministry confirmed it proposed working with the United States on funding the return of Syrian refugees to their homes in the war-torn country, but the proposition was reportedly rejected.
The proposal, which came in the form of a letter addressed to the senior US military general in July, referenced an informal refugee camp in Rukban, the ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
The poorly equipped camp, home to at least 55,000 Syrians, is located in a desert area near the convergence of the Iraqi, Syrian and Jordanian borders.
In the letter, the Russian chief of staff, General Valery Gerasimov, said Moscow was ready to discuss with Damascus safety guarantees for refugees stranded at Rukban, as well as creating conditions for their return home.
“A proposal was also made to coordinate humanitarian de-mining, including in Raqqa, and other priority humanitarian issues for the urgent establishment of peaceful life in Syria,” the ministry said.
The proposal illustrates how Russia, having helped turn the tide of the war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad, is now pressing Washington and others to aid the reconstruction of areas under his control.
“The proposal argues that the Syrian regime lacks the equipment, fuel, other material, and funding needed to rebuild the country in order to accept refugee returns,” according to a US government memo, which was seen by Reuters news agency.
The Russian plan received an icy reception in Washington. The memo said the US policy was only to support such efforts if there was a political solution to end Syria’s seven-year-old civil war.
Rukban lies within 55km of the so-called de-confliction zone established by the US close to the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The American presence in Syria has been limited to the north, where the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces are in control. The US is also present in the south along the Jordanian border.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council last week, Russia urged world powers to help Syria’s economic recovery and the return of refugees as its Damascus ally presses on with a campaign to re-take rebel-held territory.
Moscow’s intervention in 2015 tilted the conflict for Assad’s forces, who have in recent months made major territorial gains against armed groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Since then, Russia has mainly conducted air strikes against groups opposed to the government, including the Syrian National Coalition, ISIL, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham – previously known as al-Nusra Front – and others.
The war, now in its seventh year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the world’s worst refugee crisis, driving more than 11 million people from their homes.