In mid-August, Tayseer al-Qusayrawi* along with his wife and infant son, boarded a bus from the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Arsal that would take them back to Syria – but not to the home they fled in the al-Qusayr area of Homs, and not entirely by choice.
About 10,000 people have returned to Syria from the area surrounding Arsal since June. Most went under deals brokered by the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah, with a local Syrian as a go-between, without the direct involvement of the Lebanese government or the United Nations.
The returns came as the result of cease-fire deals between Hezbollah and Syrian militant groups operating in the border area – including the so-called Islamic State and the group formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as a moderate rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. Thousands of civilians returned along with the fighters.
The situation in Arsal was unusual, but the deals sparked debate in Lebanon about the best way to manage future returns of refugees from the country, where the Syrian crisis and the 1.5 million refugees the tiny country is hosting have become an increasingly volatile political issue.
Qusayrawi’s family arrived in the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province. Initially conditions were not bad, he said, apart from the scarcity of aid for the returnees, most of whom arrived with only the clothes they could carry. But within weeks, they found themselves under bombardment in a Russian airstrike campaign targeting militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – an alliance that includes the former al-Nusra group – which now controls much of Idlib province.
The family fled again, from Idlib to the Aleppo countryside, but the bombs followed.
“Now our situation is very bad,” Qusayrawi said. “We have bombing, we have airstrikes, we have people wounded, we have a lot of people being killed by Russian planes. We are forced to move from village to village.”
The refugees remaining in Arsal say they want to go back to Syria – but to their own villages and on their own terms.
After the first returns in June, a committee formed to represent the remaining refugees in discussions with government officials. The group of refugees has since been meeting with anyone who will give them an audience, including representatives of the United Nations, government ministers and politicians affiliated with sympathetic political parties.
In August, the committee met with Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party – which is politically opposed to the Syrian government and to Hezbollah. On the refugees’ list of requests, which was provided to Refugees Deeply by Khaled Raad, a representative of the committee: safe zones in Syria in Qusayr and Qalamoun, where most of the refugees are from.
The refugees called for “international guarantees and sponsorship, so the displaced people can return to their villages and homes without the authority of [Syrian president Bashar al-] Assad, under international supervision and international care.”
Without such guarantees, Raad said, most of the remaining refugees would not agree to go back.
The United Nations steered clear of the returns from Arsal. UNHCR was not able to determine if they were going back voluntarily, said Scott Craig, the agency’s spokesman in Beirut. Returnees who were interviewed later by U.N. staff inside Syria cited “the difficult living conditions in Arsal, the security situation and discrimination as the main factors influencing their decision to return,” he said.
A recent Human Rights Watch report found that many of the civilian returnees from Arsal had gone back under duress. The refugees went back because conditions in Arsal were unbearable, said Bassam Khawaja, a Lebanon-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. “They preferred to be in Syria in a war than to continue living there,” he said.
Qusayrawi agreed: “I left because of the pressure of the Lebanese government on us.”
His family was not the only one bombed upon returning. Many returnees fled Jisr al-Shughour and other areas in Idlib to displacement camps near the border with Turkey, Human Rights Watch researcher Sara Kayyali said, and at least one family of returnees was reportedly killed in western Aleppo province.
A Split Over Returns
The Lebanese government was divided in its reaction to the returns, supported by political parties aligned with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad – like Hezbollah – and opposed by the rest. Politicians from both sides have increasingly called for the refugees to go back, but the anti-Syrian regime parties oppose any direct negotiations between the Lebanese and Syrian government on returns.
Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said the situation in Arsal was “very particular” because of the presence of militant groups and would likely not be a model for future returns. At the same time, she said, Hezbollah had used the situation in Arsal “as leverage to push for the [Lebanese] government to normalize relations with the Syrian regime” in negotiating returns in the future.
Those opposed to dealing directly with the Syrian regime are pushing the international community to serve as a go-between.
The Lebanese minister of social affairs, Pierre Bouassi, a member of Geagea’s party, does not support the Arsal deals, but does advocate refugees return to “safe zones” in Syria.
“There are regions in Syria with no military operations, a lot bigger than Lebanon … why would they stay here?” Bouassi said in an interview.
“We have to start imagining solutions where we give we encourage or give incentive to Syrian displaced in Lebanon to start going back home,” he said.
Bouassi suggested direct payments of $3,000–5,000 to families who agree to go back to Syria and stay there, funded by the international community, not the cash-strapped Lebanese government.
Some European nations offer cash incentives to migrants who return to their countries. But Yahya said she doesn’t believe an economic incentive scheme would be viable in Lebanon.
“It works in a context where people are not afraid to go back,” she said. “In the case of the refugees in Lebanon, the majority of these people are not economic migrants.”
Yahya said the proposal is emblematic of the increasing push by Lebanese authorities – from all sides – to get the refugees out.
“They will latch onto any idea that would push people to go back to Syria,” she said.
Nasser Yassin, director of research at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, thinks a large-scale return deal is unlikely in the near future.
“I don’t think [the Lebanese government] will reach an agreement unless they include the U.N. as an intermediary in this,” he said. “But I don’t think the U.N. would accept the terms or the conditions that are now in Syria. They don’t think the conditions are suitable for return, and I think they’re right.”
Back in Arsal, the meetings between refugees and political officials have so far not brought concrete results. “People in Arsal are in a state of anxiety about security, food, the future, education,” Raad said.
The mayor of Arsal, Basil Hujairi, said the municipality does not want to force the remaining refugees – as many as 80,000, compared to the town’s 40,000 Lebanese inhabitants – to return. But he called the recent returns a step in the right direction.
“It changes the direction from Syria to Lebanon to Lebanon to Syria,” he said.
*Names have been changed for safety reasons.