Syrians Return Home Under Hezbollah Deal, Activists Worried

Photo: Reuters

300 men, women, children and elderly were en route back to their home. Cars, tractors, and pick-up trucks that were carrying these 60 families crossed the rocky hills of the “dangerous” land to hand them over to some soldiers and officials in plain clothes.

This is one of the hottest spots in the Middle East, the Lebanese-Syrian border, hit by six years old Syrian conflict. Those people were Syrian refugees, escorted on their way out by the Lebanese security forces. They were voluntarily leaving the Lebanese border town of Arsal for Syria on Wednesday.

Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite group fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad, announced that the group mediated for indirect talks with Syrian rebel group Saraya Ahl al-Sham to temporarily freeze hostilities and let hundreds of refugees go back home.

This is not the first time that the Shiite group involved in such a diplomacy with Syrian rebel groups. Last month, 400 refugees also arrived in Syria under an agreement arranged for the first time by Hezbollah.

Although the United Nations was not part of the deal, Lisa Abou Khaled, the spokeswoman for the UN Refugee Agency, told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that a delegation from the agency documented the return of 60 families. They cross-checked to make sure they willingly head back home and whether they are aware of the conditions that they are returning to.

Two refugees in Arsal told Reuters that many in the camps were unwilling to return, though, fearing their young men would be drafted into the army. Many also have no chance to find their villages or livelihoods untouched.

Hundreds of refugees welcomed by Damascus officials in Syria’s Asal al-Ward town, which lies in the northeast of the capital, left an estimated 60,000 Arsal refugees and a powder barrel behind them.

Alone hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon, is the boxing ring for the parties of the Syrian conflict.

Syrian regime warplanes conducted several airstrikes in Lebanon in the hope of targeting extremist groups. On the other hand, various rebel groups also attacked Syrian and Hezbollah targets in many instances until now.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported last week that Syrian jets continued to shell Lebanese border areas on the outskirts of Arsal and targeted al-Nusra Front positions. No official announcement was made, but Syrian Ambassador to Lebanon Abdul Karim Ali said: “What if Syrian jets violate Lebanese airspace or Lebanese jets violate Syrian airspace. This issue is coordinated between the two countries.”

On June 30, the raids of Lebanese army on two refugee settlements in the area fanned the flames of the deepening crisis.

Suicide attacks followed the raids, illustrating the growing threat of terrorism. Five in Arsal blew themselves up when Lebanese soldiers were searching for militants inside the camp. The explosions killed a girl and wounded some soldiers, the army said. Following the attack, several hundred people in refugee camps were arrested.

From that day on Beirut has intensified operations in the Arsal area. Lebanese army announced on Tuesday that it killed a man suspected of links to Islamic State and of carrying out terrorist attacks in Ras Baalbek near the Syrian border. Seven explosive devices, an explosive belt, hand grenades, and 50 kilograms of explosive were seized, according to the army.

In a televised speech on Tuesday, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah came out in favor of the security campaign by the army and said: “It’s high time to end the threat of militant groups in Arsal and little time is left to reach certain reconciliation deals.”

Lebanon’s Future Movement MP Ammar Houri, on the other hand, denounced Hezbollah’s interference in the Arsal crisis on Thursday. In a talk with local radio Al-Fajr, quoted by Daily Star, he called on the army to take the full responsibility.

Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, has the highest refugee population per capita in the world, deeply dividing the small nation’s already turbulent politics. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri opposed the idea of sending refugees back as he questions the safety of them.

“The UNHCR is not at a stage where it’s promoting return because the conditions are not conducive,” said UNHCR’s Dana Sleiman, expressing a similar anxiety.