On July 21, the Iran-backed Hezbollah, in coordination with the Lebanese Army, began military operations to remove Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) from areas adjacent to the town of Arsal, along Lebanon’s northeastern border with Syria. Nine days earlier, the party and the army had repatriated to Syria around 250 refugees from camps in Arsal. Both actions came as Hezbollah seeks to push the Lebanese government into normalizing relations with Damascus, while extending the United States’ and Russia’s de-escalation plan in Syria to the Lebanese-Syrian border.
Already, on June 12, around 53 refugee families were transported from Arsal, which houses close to 60,000 refugees in makeshift camps, back to ‘Asal al-Ward in the Qalamoun area of Syria, near the border with Lebanon. The move was part of a more ambitious program for the repatriation of Syrian refugees initiated by Hezbollah earlier this year. This program is an effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis through a series of localized arrangements in which Hezbollah repatriates refugees to areas recaptured from the opposition, where measures have been put in place allowing for the pacification of local populations.
In Lebanon the return of refugees to Syria is perceived as an existential question, central to the long-term sustainability of the Lebanese state. All Lebanese political parties, irrespective of their current alliances, have repeatedly called for the repatriation of refugees either to “safe zones” or to areas under the control of those whose outlook they share—be it the regime or the opposition.
Recently, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri pledged that refugees would not be forced to leave Lebanon. However, the increasingly toxic environment in which this debate is taking place may lead to the involuntary return of vulnerable refugees to Syria in unsafe conditions, as a majority of Lebanese cheer on. The atmosphere in the country is characterized by expanding anti-refugee rhetoric. This is often manipulated by politicians engaged in fear-mongering, or justified by jingoism and a need to address economic deficits blamed on the refugees or to preserve national security.
The likelihood of a chaotic return of the Syrian refugees to their country is facilitated, further, by the lack of a unified Lebanese government position on the question. This was evidenced in recent remarks of President Michel Aoun, who called for the safe but not necessarily voluntary repatriation of refugees. This was in stark contrast to Hariri’s position on the same day.
Some local newspapers have claimed, absurdly, that Syrians are fast outpacing Lebanese in the country. Attacks against refugee camps, claims of torture of Syrian detainees, the detention of a journalist for criticizing the Arsal battles, and the recorded intimidation of a lawyer representing the families of Syrians who died while in army custody have been met with little protest among policymakers and the wider public. Many such incidents took place following attacks against the Lebanese Army during a raid on the Arsal camps in July. Meanwhile, those criticizing Hezbollah’s Arsal operation as an attempt to consolidate the party’s hegemony while undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty are accused not only of treason but of favoring terrorist groups, therefore meriting death.
The overwhelming desire of most Lebanese to see refugees return home is also being used by Hezbollah and other allies of the Assad regime to compel the government to normalize relations with Damascus. After the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, believed by many to have been carried out with Syrian approval, relations between the two governments deteriorated, except for a brief period after 2009. Following the Syrian regime’s brutal clampdown on the civil uprising in 2011, the situation worsened again. While Syria has an ambassador in Beirut, currently the official channels of engagement are primarily related to security and sometimes involve the forcible return of Syrians sought by the regime. This pressure is most evident in Hezbollah’s insistence that the Lebanese government be the principal conduit for negotiating the return of refugees with the Syria government.
Meanwhile, the battle around Arsal, which led to an agreement for the withdrawal of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham combatants to Idlib governorate, should be considered in the larger context of steps to establish de-escalation zones inside of Syria, which would effectively create separate zones of influence. Such an approach led to a recent U.S.-Russian deal that bars Iran’s proxies from southern Syria near Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights, accompanied by the deployment there of Russian military police.
The fighting near Arsal, then, appeared to signal Iran’s desire to impose its own zone of influence within Syria by consolidating its territorial control over much of the Lebanese-Syrian border. Once such a zone is established, Hezbollah may claim to be responding to the Lebanese wish to establish safe zones in Syria into which Syrian refugees can be pushed.
The challenge is that many of those refugees come from areas in Syria other than Qalamoun, and they left to escape the Assad regime. Returning them without the necessary guarantees would be a direct violation of the non-refoulment principle and would likely place many at great risk.
Currently, a majority of Syrian refugees consider safety and security to be the number-one condition for their repatriation and most would prefer to go back to their areas of origin. Of the refugees currently in Lebanon, a majority fled from the governorates of Homs (21 percent) and Aleppo (21 percent) to escape regime barrel bombs and attacks against their homes. Many of those areas are now under Syrian government control. Moreover, refugees are simply unable to return, in part because their homes have been destroyed.
But more importantly, the process of refugee return is hindered by the Syrian state itself in places such as Homs. Aside from the refugees’ fear of persecution and reprisals, as well as high levels of lawlessness enabled by regime proxies, there also seems to be a desire by the regime to maintain the demographic changes that have occurred as a result of the conflict. Moreover, for as long as the war rages on, many areas across Syria will remain insecure and passage within and between them will be dangerous.
These efforts mirror to some extent the situation in Jordan, from where refugees have been deported to Syria in the past year, especially following attacks targeting the Jordanian Army near the Rukban camp. There is no doubt that the heavy burden of caring for millions of refugees among Syria’s neighbors has worn down state institutions and host communities. This, however, should not justify succumbing to the base instinct of expelling refugees with no considerations for their future. Such a policy would have long-term repercussions on Syrian-Lebanese relations and on prospects for the radicalization of Syria’s youth. In so tightly interconnected a region, their future and that of the surrounding countries are closely linked.