Syria’s conflict has created over 4.8 million refugees and around 6.3 million internally-displaced persons. Given the magnitude of the catastrophe, many people assume that a political settlement will automatically be followed by a mad rush of refugees back to their areas of origin.

However, things will not be so simple. Even though those forcibly displaced may indeed be eager to go home, refugee return is not just about the movement of people across borders. It requires a political decision and a facilitating framework to be in place, which have not been addressed in the current Geneva negotiations to end the Syrian conflict. In contrast, a piecemeal approach to return is currently being implemented by the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, turning the question of repatriation into a subsection of their political and military calculations.

The exodus of the Syrian population is a direct result of the repression of grassroots civil dissent by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, civil strife, and proxy wars that have involved regional and international actors. Many refugees have fled environments devastated by barrel bombings, forced disappearances, sieges, and chemical weapons attacks. Others have left because of sectarian or ethnic atrocities, population transfers, or military forces targeting their areas.

The complex geopolitical situation and changing facts on the ground have rendered the prospects for a just political settlement and voluntary refugee return ever more difficult to conceive. Syria today is subdivided into separate and contiguous zones of influence under the control of the regime as well as a broad range of non-state actors. These include the so-called Islamic State, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces, and various rebel groups, a number of them allied with Turkey. Around 10.1 million individuals live in government-controlled areas, while rebel-, Kurdish-, and Islamic State-controlled areas contain approximately 2 million people each. Within all of these zones a multitude of armed groups often holds sway.

At the same time, local truces or deals imposed by the regime are altering facts on the ground. These arrangements are, effectively, capitulations of towns or neighborhoods seeking to end sieges and military bombardments by the regime and its allies, in exchange for which the populations are often compelled to relocate elsewhere. They have been used by the regime and its partners to regain territorial control over Syria, one slice at a time.

More recently, however, local truces have been billed by regime representatives as mechanisms to facilitate the return of refugees and the internally displaced. The recent example of the evacuation of the Waar neighborhood of Homs, the last remaining opposition-held neighborhood in the city, was a case in point. For four years Waar had been besieged, until an accord was reached in mid-March for the evacuation of around 2,000 anti-regime combatants. The agreement was guaranteed by Russia, which deployed 60–100 soldiers to monitor implementation. The purpose of the deal, as outlined by the governor of Homs, was to remove the rebels and allow the displaced to return to their homes once the evacuation was completed. However, it remained unclear whether the 15,000–20,000 civilians who had remained in Waar and left as part of the accord would also be allowed to come back.

Previous experiences of such deals, including the one covering the eastern half of the city of Aleppo, suggest that the pace of return of refugees and internally displaced persons is slow at best and is often obstructed by those who are in control on the ground.

Meanwhile, a new approach to the repatriation of refugees appears to be taking shape in neighboring Lebanon. Earlier this year, Hezbollah attempted to broker a deal for the area of Qalamoun, located along the border with Lebanon. The 24-point agreement provides for the return of refugees to all but six towns along the strategic Damascus-Homs highway, which would remain under Hezbollah control, and immunity for army deserters and rebel fighters, on condition that they join Saraya Ahl al-Sham, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Saraya Ahl al-Sham would be stripped of its heavy weapons and put in charge of maintaining order and security in these areas. The latter clause means local populations would be governed by friendly forces, while the Saraya would also provide a link with Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.

In addition to restoring services and establishing a local governance body agreed by both sides, the deal would also allow returning refugees to receive valid identity papers, many of which were either lost or expired during the years of displacement. Reports indicate that a census is underway of refugees based mainly in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, with the larger proportion of them living in the border town of Arsal. The number of refugees expected to go back has varied according to different news sources, and ranges from 20,000, to 120,000, to 200,000. However, the outcome of the plan is still in the air. Because the refugees have little trust in Hezbollah and the Assad regime, their representatives have yet to approve it.

From Hezbollah’s perspective, the deal, if implemented, would ease pressure on Lebanon (and in particular Shia areas adjoining Syria) from the presence of a large number of refugees. For the Lebanese government, eager to repatriate Syrians, it represents an attractive option, especially when portrayed as a mechanism to create a safe zone within Syria for the refugees. However, the animosity of members of the Lebanese government towards the Syrian regime is a complication in light of Hezbollah’s insistence that all repatriations be conducted solely through official Syrian channels. Some cabinet members have already announced that they would not normalize relations with the Syrian government or negotiate with it.

However, the mood in Lebanon towards refugee-related issues is changing. Preparations are underway following meetings between Lebanese and Syrian security personnel to reopen one of the border crossings closed four years ago for security reasons. This would allow cross-border trade and would lift restrictions on population movements between Lebanon and areas back under Syrian government control. Such developments can only reinforce the Syrian regime’s role as the main interlocutor on the return of refugees, increasing its legitimacy with regard to foreign governments.

Meanwhile, anti-Syrian refugee sentiment in Lebanon is on the rise, with the decision of two villages in the Akkar to shut down refugee centers and expel refugees from their area. Actions such as these may potentially feed into the kinds of outcomes favored by Hezbollah, namely creating safe zones inside Syria that would lessen the burden on Lebanon and bolster the Assad regime.

In such contexts, a piecemeal approach to the question of return only facilitates its manipulation to satisfy short-term military and political imperatives. The local reconciliation processes in Syria fail to address the broader context in which population displacement is taking place. Nor do they tackle the more long-term challenges of post-conflict political, economic, and physical reconstruction, which should include some aspect of transitional justice to hold accountable those responsible for war crimes. This is significantly more difficult if those responsible for crimes during the conflict remain in power. As important, the shift in focus towards stabilization rather than peace-building is more of an immediate measure to impose change as negotiations take place in Geneva and elsewhere, as a prelude toward a final settlement in Syria.

A similar logic applies to the repatriation approach proposed by Hezbollah for Qalamoun. It effectively facilitates the party’s political influence over sizable areas inside Syria close to the Lebanese border, as well as areas surrounding Damascus. Significantly, should this approach prevail for repatriation, it could put pressure on vulnerable populations to depart for potentially insecure areas, effectively violating the non-refoulment clause of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol. Meanwhile, there are reports of a Lebanese government plan to repatriate all Syrian refugees to areas in line with their political affiliation.

Piecemeal capitulations and symbolic reconciliations do not represent a substitute for a comprehensive approach to a political settlement in Syria and refugee return. Indeed, such limited actions place already exposed populations at risk should fighting erupt again in places to which they have moved. This may only sow the seeds of future conflicts in Syria and beyond.