After border battle, Lebanon’s mountain refugees are facing an uncertain future
Beirut- A convoy of 34 buses carrying approximately 3,500 of the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Saraya Ahl al- Sham militia and family members, as well as refugees, left under Hezbollah’s watchful gaze to Al-Ruhaybah following several days of what local sources have often described as “logistical delays.” Lebanese Red Cross and Lebanese General Security vehicles accompanied the convoy until they reached Syrian territory. The militants were also able to keep light arms with them, according to the deal.
Local media reported that the majority who left were non-combatants, with sources reporting that only 350 of those who fled were militants.
The evacuation August 14 was part of a ceasefire agreement reached July 27 that halted fighting between factions near the Lebanese border town Arsal. Now, as Hezbollah, the Lebanese Army and militant groups take stock, the fate of thousands of refugees is in the balance.
Arsal and its outskirts have been a Lebanese security concern since 2014, when militant groups from neighbouring Syria established positions along the frontier. Both the Islamic State (ISIS) and former al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) established strongholds and, in August 2014, kidnapped 37 Lebanese soldiers and police officers.
The Lebanese Army regularly shells militants along the border to keep them at bay but has not made a meaningful effort to eradicate them.
The July assertion of Lebanon’s border sovereignty began with an attack by Hezbollah on militant positions along the frontier. Syrian jets attacked targets on both sides of the border. Supporting Hezbollah was the Lebanese Army, which shielded Arsal from retreating fighters looking for refuge.
Following the ceasefire and a subsequent exchange of bodies, all sides in the conflict and the tens of thousands of refugees who took shelter in the mountains must contemplate a fundamentally altered future.
The Arsal situation pushed the refugee returns issue to the fore. While Shia Hezbollah’s argument for the repatriation of Arsal’s predominantly Sunni refugees is pragmatic, the issue continues to divide the Lebanese government and other international bodies.
Arsal and its outskirts host approximately 70,000 Syrian refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency reported that about 10,700 identified militants and civilians expressed interest in leaving the area’s refugee camps.
However, Khaled Raad, a member of the refugees’ committee in Arsal, said that many of those with no relation to the militants were being coerced from the camps.
“To be honest, Syrian refugees are in a dilemma,” Raad said. “Some are opting to leave, fearing another military raid on their encampments where they could get detained or (find themselves) in a worse situation, especially as some don’t have their papers.”
He said JFS militants and their relatives left for Idlib, which was seized by the group just weeks ago. Saraya Ahl al-Sham militants and their relatives opted to travel to Al- Ruhaybah, 50km north of Damascus.
A source in Arsal, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Al- Ruhaybah is partially controlled by the FSA and partially by the Assad government. Those “civilians who chose to leave have opted for either,” Raad said, adding that the number leaving to Idlib and Al-Ruhaybah surpassed 12,000.
The deals taking place on both sides of the border indicate that a priority for the Syrian and Lebanese governments, as well as Hezbollah, is to secure their respective borders from different armed and militant groups.
Concerns have been raised about the safety of the refugees and the fate that awaits them in Syria. Some Syrians in Arsal said they were concerned about safety in Idlib.
Georges Ghali, programmes manager of the Lebanese rights group ALEF, said that the Lebanese government needs to “look closely” at refugee returns.
“Lebanon is bound to the absolute prohibition of refoulement (the forcible return of refugees),” Ghali said. “Expelling anyone to a location where persecution or torture could take place is in violation to the principle of non-refoulement under Article 3 of the UNCAT [UN Convention against Torture] that Lebanon has ratified.”