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Dangerous Exit: Who Controls How Syrians in Lebanon Go Home

Around 300 people departed Arsal on June 28, 2018, the first of several groups to leave the Lebanese border town this year.Abdel-Monhem Amiri

As Russia pushes for refugees to return to Syria, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are increasingly afraid they’ll have no alternative but to go back.

AS HALIMA clambered into a truck leaving Lebanon in late June, she resolved that if the men driving the vehicle were arrested at the Syrian border, she would get out and walk back to her village on her own. The 66-year-old grandmother had not seen the son and daughter she left behind in Syria for five years. Wearing an embroidered black dress and a traditional headdress, her crinkled eyes shone with determination. “I’m coming back to my land,” she said.

Having begged her not to leave, Halima’s two daughters staying in Lebanon wept on her shoulders. “We’re afraid she won’t come back,” 42-year-old Sherifa said, as her voice cracked. Sherifa cannot follow her mother to Syria; her eldest son, who has single-handedly kept the family afloat with odd jobs because of his father’s disability, would be sent to war.

Huddled in groups at the checkpoint in northeast Lebanon, other families also said their goodbyes. A teenage girl knelt on the dirt road, refusing to let go of her 19-year-old brother’s legs. Their mother, Nawal, held her as he left for a truck to the border. “I don’t know how he will live on his own in Syria. Only God knows what will happen to him,” Nawal said. “I didn’t think he would actually leave. It all happened very fast.”

A few months earlier, 3,000 Syrians in the Lebanese border town of Arsal had registered their names with Syrian and Lebanese intelligence agencies to return to their villages just over the mountains in Syria’s Qalamoun region. When the first group of several hundred people was approved to leave on June 28, many families were separated, as some members either decided not to register or were not approved by Syrian authorities.

“We need a political solution for these people to go back, but the politics doesn’t start here in Lebanon,” a Lebanese intelligence agent said, as a scuffle broke out that scorching June morning. A Syrian man lunged at Khaled Abdel Aziz, a real estate businessman who had been put in charge of signing up fellow refugees to return. Abdel Aziz sweated in his suit as he dashed between television interviews, repeating that Syrians had a country of their own to go back to. “You’re protecting the army, not protecting yourself,” the man yelled, before being pulled away.

The TV cameras rolled as dozens of trucks and tractors piled high with timber, water tanks and chicken coops were checked off a list by Lebanese intelligence agents and headed with an army escort to the Syrian border. A line of TV reporters announced to their Lebanese viewers that these refugees were going home.

As the Syrian government and its Lebanese ally battled opposition groups in the mountainous border region, some 50,000 refugees poured into Arsal, nearly tripling the population.(Abdel-Monhem Amiri)

The next day, on the other side of Arsal, a small group of refugees held a sit-in, to much less fanfare. “We’re asking for return with dignity,” one banner read, “with guarantees from the international community and the U.N.

“We’re not against the return, but we want conditions, guarantees,” said Khaled Raad, one of the organizers. His refugee committee has been petitioning the U.N. and sympathetic Lebanese politicians for international protection for returning Syrians for a year. “I mean, this is not like taking a cup of tea or coffee to say, after seven years, go ahead and return to your houses. It’s not an easy thing.”

“We need a political solution for these people to go back, but the politics doesn’t start here in Lebanon.”

By then, Halima had arrived back in Syria. Apart from some tractors breaking down en route, they had no problem crossing the border. Halima went to stay with her son while she waited to hear about the situation in her hometown, the mountaintop village of Fleeta. Her granddaughters had grown up quickly while she was in Lebanon, and she loved spending time with them in the neighboring town.

But as more of their friends and relatives returned to Fleeta, with subsequent groups departing Arsal in July, word came to the family of empty homes and little power, water or work in the Syrian village. Sherifa received messages from relatives who had returned to Fleeta but now wanted to escape again. With no easy way to come back to Lebanon legally, they planned to smuggle themselves back across the border.

Without her mother, and with bad news from Fleeta making it less likely she would ever return to Syria, Sherifa became increasingly desperate. Her husband, who is unable to work for health reasons, sunk into depression. “By God, dying is better than living,” Sherifa said. “I seek refuge in God from this return.”

Longing for Home, Afraid to Return

RETURNING TO SYRIA during this eighth year of conflict is both an excruciating personal decision and a political calculation: by refugees, the government in Syria, and other nations with a stake in the war. As the government recaptures more territory from opposition groups, and fighting quells in certain areas, some refugees are considering returning, while others are terrified of the increasing pressure to go back. After Lebanon began organizing small group returns this year, including from Arsal, these dilemmas became more urgent.  

To return is to take a political gamble: Refugees must weigh the risks of staying against the risks of going. They try to figure out who can be trusted to tell them the truth. They gather snippets of information from their cities, towns and villages about what happens to people who return. They struggle to decipher the intentions of the mercurial and multi-layered Syrian authorities and their foreign allies.

Some of the broader dangers are well-known: an estimated half a million people killed in Syria’s war, including thousands dead this year; some one million people forced to leave their homes this year alone; a third of all houses and half of all schools and hospitals damaged or destroyed; in government-controlled areas, mandatory conscription into battle for men under 43, fear of arrest and torture, and the difficulties of reintegrating into a society and economy fractured by war.

Until now, few refugees have considered this a risk worth taking. In 2017, the U.N. said 77,300 refugees went back independently to Syria, out of 5.6 million who had fled the country. The vast majority of Syrian refugees have consistently told U.N. and independent surveys they hoped to return home one day, but do not yet feel safe to do so.

There are also risks to staying. More than 80 percent of Syrian refugees remain in three neighboring countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. There, they face soaring poverty, years out of work or school, lack of official documents, risk of arrest and, above all, an increasing public clamoring for Syrians to be sent back.

In Lebanon, where at least 1.5 million Syrians have sought refuge – increasing the country’s population by a quarter – the pressure to leave is the most intense. Few Syrians have legal status, even fewer can work. Many towns have imposed curfews or carried out mass evictions. At the U.N. General Assembly last year, Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun insisted Syrians must return, voluntarily or not. “The claim that they will not be safe should they return to their country is an unacceptable pretext,” he told world leaders.

From Evacuation to Reconciliation

The Syrian government has its own political calculations over returns: who to allow back and what political price can be extracted from a world eager to send Syrian refugees home. While President Bashar al-Assad remains isolated from much of the international community, in Lebanon he has an ally and fighting partner in the Lebanese political party and militia Hezbollah, which is also supported by Iran.

Over the past year, the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies started organizing small group returns to strategically chosen locations in Syria. The returns helped fuel the perception that Syria’s war is ending and it is now time for Syrians to return, which was capitalized upon by the Assad regime and its ally, Russia. The returns from Lebanon were a “good sign” and “just the beginning,” said Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian special presidential envoy for Syria, as he launched Moscow’s push to return Syrians in late July. “It’s just like a snowball which comes from the mountain, with every passing meter it becomes bigger and bigger.”

But like the many inversions of reality in the Syrian war, the organization of returns from Lebanon is more a tactic of war than a sign of peace.

The returns helped fuel the perception that Syria’s war is ending and it is now time for Syrians to return, which was capitalized upon by the Assad regime and its ally, Russia.

They began last summer on Lebanon’s mountainous northeastern frontier with Syria. Until the Syrian uprising in 2011, the Qalamoun mountains were best known for smuggling and cherry orchards. But as the Syrian uprising became a global proxy war, the mountains became a strategic prize. They provide a connection between Syria’s capital, Damascus, and other key cities, as well as a supply line to and from Lebanon.

Hezbollah announced its intervention in the Syrian war in 2013 by recapturing the city of al-Qusayr, at the northern tip of Qalamoun. As they chased opposition fighters south, 50,000 refugees poured into Arsal, nearly tripling the population. In 2014, Syria’s war threatened to spill over into Lebanon when the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaida-affiliated militants briefly overran Arsal and abducted several Lebanese soldiers. The town was effectively sealed off from the rest of the country.

It took three years for Hezbollah and the Lebanese army to rout out remaining militants bunkered in caves around Arsal. Hezbollah also negotiated surrender deals with several groups, including the evacuation of fighters, their families and other civilians. By the end of summer 2017, about 10,000 Syrians had left Arsal, most of them refugees.

The returns last summer more closely resembled opposition surrender deals than a refugee repatriation. Most of the refugees did not go back to their own homes, but to opposition-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. Some struggled to find accommodation and work upon return. Others were displaced again because of ongoing fighting in their areas.

This year, a new form of return deal took shape: not evacuation deals negotiated with opposition forces, but “reconciliation” deals in which small groups of Syrians agree to undergo vetting by Syrian intelligence, in coordination with Lebanon’s General Security intelligence agency, to return to territory controlled by the government and Hezbollah along the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah has an interest in strategically repopulating parts of the Qalamoun, Syrian journalist Abdulrahman al-Masri wrote earlier in Syria Deeply. This helps consolidate their control of the area while securing a public relations win in Lebanon by sending refugees home.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees have gone back from Lebanon under reconciliation deals this year. “These deals are relatively insignificant in number, but they send a message to the press and public that it is safe to return,” Nasser Yassin said. The energetic professor leads research at the American University of Beirut’s public policy think tank, the Issam Fares Institute, a hub for international and Lebanese discussions about refugee policy in Lebanon. “But we don’t know what happens on the other side,” he said.

The Other Side

Salha, a contemporary of Halima’s and just as fierce, was also preparing to leave Arsal in June when her son Mohamed asked her to stay. The 65-year-old was impatient to get to work rebuilding the family home in Fleeta so it would be ready for Mohamed and his five children when they returned to Syria. He may be 45 and a successful former smuggler, but Salha raised him alone and she does not see why she should stop taking care of him now.

Mohamed’s father died when he was five months old. He has no siblings, so he and his mother are used to looking out for each other. Mohamed could not bear the idea of her back in Syria alone, needing a doctor and having no one to call. So Salha agreed to wait until Mohamed could convince the whole family to return together.

“It’s dangerous to go back, but it’s dangerous to stay here also.”

In their makeshift home on a friend’s farm in Arsal, the family kept going back and forth on the decision. As he took a wheezy drag on his cigarette, Mohamed laid out the dilemma. Salha is getting more frail and more nostalgic for home, and Mohamed wants to honor her wishes. “Everyone wants to die in their own village,” he said. But his sons, aged 18 and 20, refuse to go back. They are terrified of mandatory conscription, but Mohamed is also worried about them getting into trouble in Lebanon. “It’s dangerous to go back, but it’s dangerous to stay here also,” he said.

In mid-July, Mohamed had changed his mind twice in two weeks about whether to return when he heard about the death of his brother-in-law, Hasan. The 40-year-old had returned to Fleeta at the beginning of the month with another group from Arsal. Three days later, masked men shot him dead at the entrance to his home.

The war in Syria divided Fleeta, like many other towns. Now under pro-government control, people who fled the village, and those from certain families, face suspicion of association with opposition groups and possible revenge from former adversaries. Mohamed had heard rumors of relatives being beaten upon return to Fleeta, but Hasan’s death was a shock. “People who go back to Syria are afraid to talk about what’s really happening, even to their own families,” he said.

As Mohamed agonized over what to do, he was even more worried that the decision would be taken out of his hands. As an insurance policy, in case the family is compelled to return, he asked a friend in a pro-Assad militia back home if he can offer them protection.

We’re afraid in the future we’ll be forced to go back. So it’s better to go back your own way,” said Mohamed, as he weighed the family’s fears against the prospect that joining Halima and other families returning from Lebanon would provide safety in numbers. “If other refugees are leaving and there’s only a few of us left in Lebanon, we are sure that they will force us out.”

Forced Choices, Organized Chaos

Yusra grew up on a farm outside Homs in Syria but was always fiercely ambitious. After her family fled to Lebanon, she set up a dollar store beside their camp. In July, she decided to take her 8 year old son back to their village with the help of smugglers, leaving her husband Abu Mustafa behind. At 42, he is still eligible for military service. “I am going to miss him,” Yusra said. “I will miss my store and my garden and all the good people I met here, especially the ones who helped us for nothing in return.” (Ali Alsheikh Khedr)


THE WAR IN SYRIA has left many broken international norms in its wake. The prohibitions on using chemical weapons, and on targeting journalists, schools and hospitals, have repeatedly been flouted. How Syrians return home threatens to erode yet another rule of the post-World War II era: that countries must not force refugees to return to danger.

The principle that refugees should return voluntarily is already under threat. Modern conflicts are lasting longer, stretching aid budgets and – as richer countries resettle fewer refugees – the capacity and goodwill of countries next to warzones. Refugees often have few alternatives but to return home, whether it’s safe or not.

For many Syrians, “the notion of a voluntary return is slowly losing meaning,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, which recently produced one of the most comprehensive studies of Syrian refugees’ preconditions to return. “Many refugees are being placed in a situation where they can choose to live in misery in a host country that rejects them; or risk their lives to return to their home country, that does not necessarily want them.”

The final straw for Abdul, a 48-year-old former bus driver from Aleppo, was his father’s death. Six years of poverty and exploitation in Lebanon had already worn him down. He drives a forklift truck in a food-canning factory in the central Bekaa Valley for long hours and little wages. “Every morning I go to work feeling like I am going to prison,” he said.

That he could bear, but missing his father’s funeral was too much. His elderly father fell ill during a winter storm at the end of 2015. Like most Syrians in Lebanon, Abdul does not have legal status in the country. Lebanon ordered the U.N. to stop registering refugees in 2015 and many Syrians cannot afford or meet the criteria for residency.

When his father died, Abdul brought his body to hospital. The staff called the police, who immediately asked him for proof of legal status in the country. “They took me to prison while my dad’s body was still there in the hospital,” he said. “I just wanted to bury my dad respectfully.” While Abdul waited in jail, his friends arranged the burial.

“Many refugees are being placed in a situation where they can choose to live in misery in a host country that rejects them; or risk their lives to return to their home country, that does not necessarily want them.”

This year, Abdul decided to take his family home. He has been selling off possessions to pay for a smuggler. Many refugees who return out of desperation pay smugglers to take them back to Syria, both to avoid Lebanese fines for overstaying in the country and to circumvent questioning at the Syrian border. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us there in Aleppo, but I can’t take it anymore here,” Abdul said. “I’m going to start a new life with family. At least this way I can save what’s left of our dignity.”

Lebanon: Microcosm of a Global Dilemma

When refugees return under pressure or because they lack alternatives, they often ending up fleeing again. “Returns work best when people choose to go back, and it’s often a very gradual process,” said researcher Katy Long, who authored a 2013 independent study of repatriation policy for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. “But in the majority of refugee situations there is a lot of pressure politically from states to declare the crisis over by returning people back.”

This tension may be exacerbated in the case of Syria. The arrival of 1 million Syrians to Europe since 2015 shook faith in the continent’s political institutions, which struggled to marshal an effective response. “With the political fallout from the Syrian refugees who arrived in Europe, that pressure [to declare the crisis over] is perhaps even more acute,” Long said. “Particularly with the power that some European states have to push the [returns] agenda.”

Yusra is determined to show her son that his country is beautiful and that his relatives are not terrorists, as he was made to believe in Lebanon.  “I have learned to be a strong and independent person here,” Yusra said. “We don’t know what’s waiting for us over there, but I’m going there to build a whole new life for me and my son.” (Ali Alsheikh Khedr)

The political minefield ahead was previewed in Lebanon this spring. The isolated agricultural town of Chebaa, squeezed between the country’s borders with Israel and Syria, welcomed the refugees’ revival of their aging town. In April, Chebaa inadvertently became the launching pad for a political campaign against the UNHCR. Around 500 Syrians living in Chebaa and surrounding villages in south Lebanon took buses to their hometown of Beit Jinn after being vetted by Syrian intelligence. Just a 10-kilometer mountain scramble away, Beit Jinn had recently been retaken by pro-government forces. It was the first cross-border reconciliation deal to receive significant publicity in Lebanon.

The UNHCR issued an anodyne statement reiterating that it was not involved in organizing the return of refugees. The agency’s policy is that conditions in Syria are not ready for refugees to return to safety and a dignified life, so it can “neither promote nor facilitate” returns. Most governments follow this line.

With Lebanon’s long-delayed elections just a few weeks away, Christian hardliners in Lebanon seized upon the statement. A few days after refugees departed Chebaa in April, the Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil ordered the UNHCR not to issue any further statements about returns. He later claimed the U.N. agency was scaring refugees into not returning and froze residency permits for UNHCR staff in Lebanon.

Bassil has warned of an “international conspiracy” to keep refugees in Lebanon to weaken the country. He has tried to enlist international support to return Syrians from Lebanon, by playing on European antipathies toward refugees. On a visit to Hungary last year, he asked the country’s anti-immigration prime minister, Viktor Orban, to help Lebanon send Syrians back. Lebanese president Aoun, who is also Bassil’s father-in-law, made the same appeal to a visiting delegation of far-right European parliamentarians in June, warning that otherwise Syrians “may rush to Europe.”

“Bassil is using the same line of thought that you see from Washington, D.C. to Budapest and Beirut, from Manila to Milan,” said Yassin, the American University of Beirut professor. “Each one is using his own style, but they’re all taking anti-refugee positions … using the fear of others becoming a majority.”

The campaign against the UNHCR did receive domestic and international pushback. “Those trying to expel the Syrians are trying to send them towards the danger they escaped,” Lebanon’s top Sunni cleric admonished in his sermon for the Muslim holiday of Eid. Lebanese Druze leader Walid Joumblatt accused the president of scapegoating refugees. In June, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Lebanon and urged the government to work with the UNHCR over returns, while U.S. senators asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to do the same in an annual spending bill.

Yusra trained her husband Abu Mustafa, who has hearing difficulties, to run the store after she left Lebanon. He was not happy with her decision. “I don’t think it’s safe enough yet and I was hoping for us to go back altogether when the tensions calm down in Syria,” Abu Mustafa said. “But this is her will and she is free to make her own decisions.”  (Ali Alsheikh Khedr)

Lebanon’s relationship with neighboring Syria is particularly complicated, with Syria’s interventionist past and Lebanon’s fragile post-civil war power balance between religious communities. Sharply divided between supporters and opponents of Assad’s government, the Lebanese government has kept the peace by tolerating multiple, contradictory policies on the Syrian war, refugees and now the returns.

While Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri and other parties who oppose Assad insist the U.N. must oversee returns, the Lebanese General Security agency announced in May it was working with Syrian intelligence to organize the return of refugees and later designated offices to receive refugees’ applications to return. Hezbollah and their ally, Bassil’s Free Patriotic Movement, said their parties would help encourage and sign people up for returns.

“Sometimes a deliberate multi-policy is beneficial to the country. It gives you flexibility,” Nadim Munla, a Hariri advisor, said when asked if Hezbollah-organized returns undermine the prime minister’s authority. “In a country that is sectarian not secular, you derive your power from your group, your religion, your sect – not from the policy agenda that you have.”

Setting the Agenda

But without a clear, alternate vision for how Syrians will go home, the space was left open for authoritarian voices to take control of the narrative. At the American University of Beirut, Yassin has tweeted a “fact of the day” about refugees in Arabic and English for over a year, his personal effort to insert facts into Lebanese discussion about refugees. It was frustrating for him to watch Bassil posturing and the UNHCR on the defensive.

“You can’t just retreat to humanitarian lines, like the humanitarianism of the 1950s. The world has changed,” Yassin said. “With all the right-wing nationalism around the world, you need a response. We react but we don’t set the agenda. So the agenda is the anti-refugee narrative.”

In July, the agenda was seized by Russia, whose 2015 intervention tipped the war in the government’s favor but is now seen as eager to exit the battlefield. After Russian president Vladimir Putin met with U.S. president Donald Trump, Russia’s defense ministry sent a proposed joint action plan to Washington, D.C. to return 1.7 million Syrian refugees, including the curiously specific estimate of 889,031 from Lebanon. Lebanese politicians welcomed the idea.

“We react but we don’t set the agenda. So the agenda is the anti-refugee narrative.”

Following the Russian announcement, the U.N. refugee agency reiterated its list of conditions to begin facilitating returns to part or all of Syria, which it had outlined in some detail earlier this year. Among them are improved security, a large number of refugees requesting return, an amnesty for returnees, including for those who evaded military service, and UNHCR access to returnees, likely guaranteed in a formal agreement.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly delayed permission for the UNHCR to enter areas where people have returned. In July, a UNHCR official said they had not been able check on the refugees who left Chebaa and south Lebanon for Beit Jinn in April. An aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said several of the families have since used smugglers to return from Beit Jinn to other parts of Lebanon, where they have gone into hiding.

Peace is War; Reconciliation is Resignation

A Syrian man carries his wounded friend after clashes near Moadamiya in January 2016. (Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

THE SYRIAN FARMING town of Moadamiya, on the outskirts of Damascus, held some of the first anti-government protests in 2011. Many initially directed their ire at local mayor Hassan Abu Zeid and recent land seizures for a nearby military barracks. As the uprising widened, the mayor fled. Last month, Abu Zeid came back to Moadamiya with a group from Lebanon.

Moadamiya experienced some of the darkest tactics of the war. Government forces besieged the town, and starving residents scavenged to survive. In 2013, an estimated 1,500 people were killed in a chemical weapons attack on Moadamiya and a neighboring suburb. Soon after, the town accepted one of the government’s first local ceasefire deals.

The deal didn’t last, and the government reimposed a crippling siege. Pro-government forces finally recaptured the town in 2016. Residents were given a choice: evacuate to opposition-held Idlib province or accept a reconciliation agreement with the government. Some refugees in Lebanon also returned to Moadamiya under the terms of the reconciliation deal.

This year, the Syrian government helped widen the reconciliation process to small groups in Lebanon. Mohamed Hamra, a wiry 30-year-old from Moadamiya, had good contacts in the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division, which is overseen by the president’s brother Maher al-Assad and headquartered on the outskirts of Moadamiya. In late 2016, Hamra said he received a call from Ghassan Bilal, manager of the 4th Armored Division, sanctioning him to register refugees who want to return to the town. In June, an official from the government’s reconciliation committee came to Hamra’s home in Lebanon to meet with refugees.

After they were vetted by Syrian intelligence, Hamra returned to Moadamiya in early July with 50 others, including the former mayor. He is planning to join his cousin’s construction company, which has begun rebuilding the town. He is waiting for Syrian intelligence to approve the names of hundreds of others who want to return from Lebanon to Moadamiya.

“I know everything that happens to them is my responsibility,” Hamra said. “But I don’t feel afraid because people asked me to help them go back, and we have guarantees from the Syrian regime.”

Language Written by the Victors

As the government and its allies extend their control over Syria, they are also setting the terms of the country’s future. Russia is the main sponsor of the reconciliation agenda inside Syria. In 2016, Russia set up a Center for Reconciliation in Syria to coordinate the deals. In July, Russia announced a new Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees to coordinate refugee repatriation. A few weeks later, Russia’s special presidential envoy for Syria visited Jordan and Lebanon to set up joint working groups to organize returns. In early August, the Syrian government announced a committee to coordinate returns with “friendly countries.”

Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government and Russia have applied the language of peace to the strategies of war. Local ceasefires like those in Moadamiya “paralyze the global community by introducing an illusion of progress into what are actually full-on assaults against civilians,” according to Syrian academic Mohammed Alaa Ghanem. The 2017 agreement for safe zones in Syria was a “war management strategy,” allowing pro-government forces to sequence their battles while imitating a desire for peace, analysts told Syria Deeply.

38-year-old Hanan is trying to persuade her brother not to leave Lebanon for their home in Deir Ezzor. Many displaced from the city remain in refugee camps inside Syria, like that pictured above. Hanan thinks it’s too much of a risk: her cousin returned previously under a reconciliation arrangement, and a week later they lost all contact with him. “We both know that my brother might not make it through the first checkpoint,” she said.  (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Now, the return of refugees may provide Russia and the Syria government with an opportunity to break the international impasse over Assad’s future in Syria. “They’re keeping it for a big win,” Yassin said. “There will be a political price: There is no free lunch for the Assads, and there never has been. They want to gain something out of it: to reinstate Bashar into the international community.”

Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government and Russia have applied the language of peace to the strategies of war.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah used its organization of returns to increase pressure Hariri to formally reopen relations with Assad, which he has resisted until now, said the Carnegie Center’s Yahya, a close watcher of the politics around returns. Lebanon, like Syria’s other neighbors, have the most to gain from resuming relations, politically and economically. They could be low-hanging fruit in the diplomatic rehabilitation of Assad, with Europe as the ultimate prize.

“What better way to resume relations than to coordinate refugee returns,” Yahya said. “The regime is extremely aware of how the issue of refugees has been politicized … They’re utilizing the issue of refugee returns as a way to pull countries in and then deal with [the removal of] sanctions and [start of] reconstruction.”

Controlling Returns

The reconciliation agreements also enable the government to control who it allows to return and how. Syrians who sign up undergo questioning upon return. Men under 43 are promised a six-month exemption from conscription, after which they must join the military or a local security group.

Many refugees in Lebanon hope to wait long enough to check if these agreements will be honored before they return. In Syria, there are some reports of the terms shifting afterward. In Moadamiya, former opposition fighters told Reuters the option of joining a local security group was revoked, and they were conscripted to fight their former allies. In neighboring Darayya, people transferred to a government “evacuation center” after the town’s 2016 reconciliation deal were later arrested anyway, according to Amnesty International.

“We’re now entering the second phase of the war. The primary conflict is over and they’re sorting out what will happen in the government-controlled areas and the Kurdish areas,” Yahya said. “Some people will be able to go back, mainly pro-regime individuals, those from areas that were not at the forefront of protests, and families who don’t have someone who is wanted.”

Between die-hard loyalists and known opposition activists, many refugees are trying to figure out where they fit into Assad-controlled Syria today. They are searching for their names on various wanted lists – conscription orders published by the authorities or arrest warrants leaked by defectors – and trying to verify information through connections back home.

While she tries to persuade her brother not to leave, Hanan is still preparing for the worst. She has put all of her diaper factory wages toward a psychologist for her nine-year-old daughter.  She was unable to speak for three years after Hanan’s husband was executed in front of them by so-called Islamic State militants. If forced back to Syria, they plan to stay with Hanan’s mother in Damascus. “All signs are pointing to us to going back to our country, regardless of our safety and the conditions,” she said. (Ali Alsheikh Khedr)

Maryam was shocked to find her name on one of the lists. Last year, she and her husband started discussing if they could return to Moadamiya under the reconciliation deal. As a former school principal, she couldn’t bear watching her daughters grow up without formal education in Lebanon. They also heard that men returning to Moadamiya were being sent straight to the frontlines of battle. So they decided she would go back alone with their girls.

“We left Syria because we were afraid for the safety of our children from the bombing and shelling, but here they are left without an education, a future or a hope,” Maryam said. “Of course, it will be tough to separate, but I will sacrifice, and my husband will sacrifice, in order to save our children and their education.”

“I wouldn’t leave Syria if they offered me any country in the world.”

Then Maryam learned that as a former government employee who never returned from a 2012 vacation – they only expected to stay in Lebanon a few months – she had been listed as a defector. Fearing arrest, she delayed their travel. “No one favors a foreign country over their own country, no one. I wouldn’t leave Syria if they offered me any country in the world,” she said. “But, on the other hand, if there is a threat to my life or my children’s, I am obliged to endure the pain of living abroad.”

The Syrian government claims to want refugees to return, but recent policies have not allayed refugees’ fears. While pursuing reconciliation, the Syrian government last year made it harder to get an exemption from military service. The government issued a law this spring requiring Syrians to prove ownership of their properties within 30 days of their town being designated a reconstruction area. Fearing the mass confiscation of refugees’ homes would stop Syrians from returning, Germany and Lebanon protested. Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem assured them the period would be extended to a year, but the law has yet to be amended.

Analysts warn that the government’s approach to reconciliation, returns and reconstruction, with the backing of Russia, risks consolidating the very dynamics that caused the 2011 uprising. They have not addressed the issues that brought protesters out onto the streets in the first place – detention and torture, land expropriation and displacement – but rather made them worse.

“We have serious doubts about the intentions of the Syrian regime and whether they want the 13 million people to return home,” said Munla, the advisor to Hariri, who is still pushing for U.N. oversight of returns. “If the regime really wants them back, let them declare a policy. Let them give them incentives. Let them say those that have destroyed houses, we’re going help rebuild them. Make a plan.”

Epilogue: No Way Back

Refugees who opposed the regime and will not or cannot go home are now looking for other ways out of Lebanon. (Abdel-Monhem Amiri)

AS THE RETURNS GATHER PACE, Syrians who are wanted by the government are looking for another way out. In Lebanon, they have few options. Places for resettlement abroad are scarce. Few have the resources to pursue visas or scholarships.

“I’m not going back to a place where I have to see pictures in streets and offices of Assad, the person who killed my friends and relatives,” said Mohamed, a 32-year-old school teacher from the city of al-Qusayr. His last years in Syria were punctuated by loss: a cousin with mental health issues was tortured to death in jail; a close friend was killed by a pro-government sniper; an uncle disappeared as he fled the city. Mohamed, a former pro-democracy activist who began by posting satirical cartoons on Facebook, is certain his name is on the regime’s wanted lists.

Until recently, Mohamed was reluctant to leave new friends in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. But, with every military gain by Assad, his faith in the international community’s support to the Syrian opposition ebbed. He now plans to go to Japan for a Master’s degree in peace and conflict studies. His wife considered returning to Syria alone, until her mother was arrested at the border and detained for two months.

“The problem is no one is responsible for refugees in Lebanon. We’re so weak now, just listening to rumors, hearing about what’s happening in our city on the news,” Mohamed said. “There’s no one negotiating in a good way for us.”

“There’s no one negotiating in a good way for us.”

Meanwhile, Syrians still arrive in Lebanon, even though the border has been closed to most refugees since 2015. Two days after refugees returned to Syria from Chebaa this spring, Ahmed, a metal-worker from near Damascus, scrambled over the mountains in the opposite direction. It had been nearly two years since his family had heard any news of him. His wife, Manal, couldn’t believe it was actually Ahmed when she saw a video of him with a sunken face and scraggly beard after he was released from a government prison this year.

After two long, hard years raising their two sons alone in exile, Manal also couldn’t believe Ahmed would actually make it into Lebanon. So when she heard he was coming in April, she told the boys only that they were taking a day trip to Beirut. At a busy intersection in the Lebanese capital, 10-year-old Ubay recognized his father and dashed through the chaotic traffic. Ahmed folded his young son into his arms.

“There is less violence over there [in Syria], but they live under oppression,” Manal said. “And oppression is another form of violence.”

Having just gotten out alive, Ahmed has no intention to go back anytime soon. He is not alone: During July, at least 200 Syrians were arrested crossing into Lebanon from Syria. “There is less violence over there [in Syria], but they live under oppression,” Manal said. “And oppression is another form of violence.” The family are scraping by in a single room in the old city of the southern Lebanese port of Saida. “When you have kids, everything changes,” she said. “All you want is a better life for your children than yours. But here there’s no better life than mine.”

She thought of taking a smuggler’s boat to Turkey, but Lebanon’s coastline is better guarded than it had been previously. She often goes to the seashore, lined with fairground rides and swing sets, wades out into the water in her full-length robe and stares up at the planes. “In Syria, we used to be afraid of what the planes would fire on us,” she said. “Now we just dream they’ll take us away.”

Additional Reporting

Abby Sewell

U.S. journalist based in Lebanon

Ali Alsheikh Khedr

Syrian journalist

Abdel-Monhem Amiri

Lebanese journalist

The names of several refugees have been changed in order to protect their identities.

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