MOSCOW – Russia lashed out at Western countries on Monday, accusing them of blocking U.N. aid for Syria's reconstruction and trying to prevent the return of refugees.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after talks with his Lebanese counterpart, Gibran Bassil, that the U.S. refusal to provide assistance for rebuilding Syria after more than seven years of fighting would deter Syrians from returning to their homes.
Russia has been the chief backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, helping his forces to regain control over most of the country. Now Moscow is calling on Western countries, which backed the opposition, to help fund reconstruction efforts, saying it would reduce the flow of refugees and migrants to Western Europe.
Speaking after the talks with Bassil, Lavrov bristled at the U.S. and its Western allies for making assistance to Syria contingent on a political transition process. He also accused the West of pressuring the United Nations to stay away from reconstruction efforts in Syria.
Lavrov said Moscow is looking into why the U.N. cultural agency, UNESCO, is dragging its feet on the reconstruction of world-famous archaeological sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra. He said the U.N. Secretariat's political department has explicitly banned any involvement in reconstruction in Syria pending a political settlement.
Lavrov added that he voiced a strong protest against the move in a phone conversation with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
"It's inadmissible when a group of countries manipulates secretariats of international organizations, which are supposed to be unbiased and independent," Lavrov said. "The U.N. was created on the basis of ... equality of all countries. I strongly urge our Western partners to return to that principle and not try to covertly exploit international organizations."
He also criticized recent comments by Filippo Grandi, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, who said last week that it was too soon to talk about the mass repatriation of the more than 5 million Syrian refugees. Lavrov said the UNHCR should not be a "subsidiary of a group of Western countries."
Lavrov also charged that al-Qaida militants located near al-Tanf in southeastern Syria, where U.S. military advisers are based, have launched raids intended to prevent refugees from coming back from Jordan.
Bassil said Lebanon, which is hosting more than 1 million refugees, fully supports Russian efforts to help Syrians return.
"Lebanon supports the quick and safe return of Syrian refugees without any link to a political solution," Bassil said. "The circumstances in Syria have changed and many areas are safe, and for that reason there is no reason for the refugees to stay."
He said Lebanon would be in contact with Syria to support Russian initiatives to help the refugees return.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.