Russian President Vladimir Putin has said millions of Syrian refugees should start returning home to help rebuild the country, saying larges areas enjoyed relative peace.
But current conditions in the war-torn country are not ripe for the mass return of refugees, according to Syria observers and many in the West.
Putin’s comments on Monday in a video call with al-Assad came ahead of a two-day international conference on refugees in Damascus, scheduled to begin on Wednesday.
The controversial gathering, organised by Moscow, has been criticised by United Nations and United States officials.
In the video call, Putin said that “international terrorism has been almost wiped out and return to civilian life should begin gradually”.
Russia and the Syrian government refer to Syrian rebel groups as “terrorists”.
Putin also told al-Assad that a deal for Syria’s conflict should include the return of refugees and displaced people in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. He added that the refugees “are people of working age and should work on rebuilding their country”.
UN Security Council Resolution 2254 adopted in December 2015 sets a timetable for talks and a ceasefire that was never met.
Syria state media carried the Putin-al-Assad video call with an Arabic voiceover of Putin’s comments, which he made in Russian.
The nine-year war has displaced millions and killed nearly 500,000 people, leaving Syria – which had a pre-war population of 23 million – torn into rival areas controlled by different groups, backed by regional or international players.
Some 5.6 million Syrians were forced to flee their country while another six million were internally displaced.
Syrian troops have since retaken large swaths of territory from rebels, who now control the northwestern province of Idlib. Meanwhile, US-backed Kurdish-led fighters control parts of the country’s east.
A UN-facilitated political process has been stuck for months, and many Western countries blame Damascus for blocking progress.
Ahead of the Damascus conference, it remains unclear whether some of the countries that host the largest numbers of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, would attend.
Syria accuses Turkey, which backs the armed opposition to al-Assad, of illegally deploying troops inside Syrian territory that is controlled by the rebels.
Lebanon, which hosts the highest per-capita number of Syrian refugees in the world, said it would send a small delegation.
Richard Mills, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, said last month that the conference was not organised in coordination with the United Nations or the countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees, urging nations to boycott it.
“This conference will only be the beginning to solve this humanitarian problem,” al-Assad said in the video call, adding that a main obstacle for the return of refugees are Western sanctions, which he described as “illegitimate and unjust”.