Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister

Lebanon’s crisis is ‘dangerous’, evokes start of ’75 war: defense minister
By Tom Perry and Nadine Awadalla

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Defence Minister said on Thursday the country was in a “very dangerous situation” and compared street unrest of recent days to the start of 1975-90 civil war.

One month after the start of nationwide protests, Lebanon is in serious political and economic trouble with no indication of its leaders agreeing on a new government to replace the outgoing cabinet of Saad al-Hariri, who quit as premier on Oct. 29.

Despite the magnitude of the economic crisis, the biggest since the war, leaders have not yet been able to agree a new cabinet or to tackle the grievances of demonstrators who say Lebanon has been ruined by corruption and sectarian cronyism.

Though the protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, a protester was shot dead in an altercation with soldiers on Tuesday. A funeral was held for the protester, a follower of Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, while the soldier who opened fire has been detained.

Caretaker Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab said tensions on the street and road closures “have reminded us of the civil war, what happened in 1975. And this situation is very dangerous.”

Bou Saab, a political ally of President Michel Aoun, said demonstrators had the right to protest and to be protected. But the army and security services could not tolerate violence.

Aoun said he hoped a government could be formed in the coming days to meet the demands of the protesters.

He enraged protesters in an televised interview on Tuesday evening with a comment widely understood to mean he was telling them to emigrate if they didn’t like how the country was run.

Schools, banks and many shops were closed for the third straight day. Some major routes around the capital that had been barricaded by protesters were unblocked by authorities, but the political mood remained brittle.

“WE ARE ALL IN DEEP TROUBLE”

Hani Bohsali, general manager of Bohsali Foods and president of a group representing around 50 importers, said he was among businessmen who had warned of more trouble at a meeting with Central Bank governor Riad Salameh and other top bankers.

“My message to all of them is that we are all in deep trouble, but you have to give priority to the food supply. Because the food is even more important than the fuel,” he said.

Banks, which were shut for half of October, closed again this week over staff security concerns. Most transfers out of the country have been blocked and, with U.S. dollars scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound is weakening on the black market.

So far there has been no sign of significant shortages.

Paul Kallassi, a board member of Kallassi Group, a major buyer and distributor of food, said suppliers have so far continued to ship based on “trust” even as arrears mount, a situation he said was not sustainable.

“They cannot finance millions of dollars just because they trust me,” said Kallassi.

Lebanon’s bank staff union called for employees to stay on strike until it received details of a security plan, especially on how to deal with customers demanding their cash.

A banker said that by remaining closed, banks were also avoiding the problem of depositor panic.

“You have a problem of liquidity, and there is no solution for it, unless you put in place a proper plan to solve the problem, there is no need to open the banks,” a banker said.

“You need to have a political solution, to offer a little bit of confidence, and this will eventually allow you to calm down the market and reopen normally.”

(Reporting by Nadine Awadalla, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Eric Knecht; Additional reporting by Reuters television, Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood)

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in

As protests rock Baghdad and Beirut, Iran digs in
BEIRUT/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – As governments in Iraq and Lebanon stagger and stumble under huge waves of popular protest, powerful factions loyal to Iran are pushing to quash political upheaval which challenges Tehran’s entrenched influence in both countries.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has resigned and the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

Both governments have enjoyed backing from the West. But they have also relied on the support of political parties affiliated with powerful Iran-backed Shi’ite armed groups, keeping allies of Tehran in key posts.

That reflects the relentless rise of Iranian influence among Shi’ite communities across the Middle East, since Tehran formed the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1982 and after Saddam Hussein was toppled in Iraq in 2003.

Both Iraq and Lebanon have government systems designed to end sectarian conflict by guaranteeing a share of power to parties that represent different communities. In both countries, leading Shi’ite groups are closely associated with Iran, and have held on to weapons outside the official security forces.

Protesters are now challenging those power structures, which Iraqis and Lebanese blame for corruption, the dire state of public services and the squandering of national wealth, which Iraq brings in from oil and Lebanon from foreign backing.

WHO IS BEHIND THE PROTESTS?

Unusually in both countries where sectarian parties have previously dominated politics, most protesters are not linked to organized movements. In both countries they have called for the kind of sweeping change seen in the 2011 Arab uprisings, which brought down four Arab leaders but bypassed Lebanon and Iraq.

In Lebanon, demonstrations flared in late September against bad economic conditions as the country grappled with a deepening financial crisis. Nationwide protests broke out two weeks later against government plans to raise a new tax on calls using popular mobile phone software such as WhatsApp.

In Iraq, demonstrations began in Baghdad and quickly spread to the southern Shi’ite heartland.

WHAT IS AT STAKE?

In Iraq, the protests have taken place on a scale unseen since Saddam’s overthrow, with sweeping demands for change. The authorities have responded with a violent crackdown which left more than 250 people dead, many killed by snipers on rooftops firing into crowds.

“The fact that you were seeing that level of mobilization makes the protests more dangerous in the perception of the political elite,” said Renad Mansour, Iraq analyst at London-based Chatham House.

The mainly Iran-backed militias view the popular protests as an existential threat to that political order, Mansour said.

In Lebanon, the demonstrations come at a time of economic crisis widely seen as the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war. If Hariri’s resignation prolongs the political paralysis it will jeopardize prospects of rescue funding from Western and Gulf Arab governments.

HOW HAVE IRAN’S ALLIES RESPONDED?

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah initially addressed the Lebanon protesters sympathetically, echoing Hariri’s conciliatory stance, before changing tone and accusing foreign powers of instigating the unrest. People loyal to Hezbollah and the Shi’ite movement Amal attacked and destroyed a protest camp in Beirut.

Hariri announced his resignation shortly afterwards despite pressure from Hezbollah, widely seen as the most powerful player in Lebanon, not to concede to the protests.

In the absence of an obvious replacement for Hariri, Hezbollah, which is under U.S. sanctions, faces a predicament. Although Hezbollah and its allies have a majority in parliament, they cannot form a government on their own because they would face international isolation, said Nabil Boumonsef, a commentator with Lebanon’s an-Nahar newspaper.

“It would be the quickest recipe for financial collapse. The whole world will be closed to them.”

In Baghdad, Abdul Mahdi’s government was saved for now after apparent Iranian intervention. Reuters reported this week that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the elite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which sponsors Tehran’s allies abroad, flew to Baghdad for a secret meeting at which a powerful Shi’ite party agreed to keep the prime minister in office.

Iraqi security officials have said that snipers who shot down from rooftops at crowds last month were deployed by Iran-backed militias.

WHAT ARE THE LIMITS OF IRANIAN INFLUENCE?

While Shi’ite militia forces project unambiguous power, Iran’s political weight is often deployed behind the scenes.

In Lebanon, a longstanding accord on power-sharing means no single confession can dominate state institutions. For all its prominence, Hezbollah picked only three ministers in Hariri’s last cabinet.

“A winner-takes-all mentality just does not work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, who said Hezbollah may have miscalculated by employing “scare tactics” against the protesters.

“This goes against the grain of Lebanese politics. They are going to have to compromise.”

In Iraq too “Iran has more influence than any other country … but it doesn’t have control over what happens there,” says Crisis Group’s Iran project director Ali Vaez.

WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE?

In Iraq it is too early to say. Tehran’s main rival, the United States, has so far kept mostly quiet on the protests, probably waiting to see the outcome.

In Lebanon, which urgently needs outside funding to keep its economy afloat, Tehran’s international foes have used their financial clout to challenge its influence more directly. Before he quit, Hariri failed to convince foreign donors to release $11 billion in aid pledged last year, in part because of Hezbollah’s prominence.

Wealthy Sunni Gulf Arab states, engaged in a proxy conflict with Iran across the region, had long funded Beirut, but Saudi Arabia cut back support sharply three years ago, saying Hezbollah had “hijacked” the Lebanese state.

Gulf Arab countries and the United States have coordinated moves against Iranian-linked targets with sanctions on 25 corporations, banks and individuals linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah.

“Gulf Arab states are bound by sanctions. Hezbollah are an integral part of the (Lebanese) government,” a Gulf source said. “Nobody has given up on Lebanon” but “the system is broken… Improvements need to be seen on several fronts, including fiscal discipline.”

Two U.S. officials said this week that President Donald Trump’s administration is withholding $105 million in security aid for Lebanon.

(Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Baghdad, Beirut and Dubai; writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Peter Graff)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he will likely release Mideast peace plan after Israel elections

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag and a cane during a protest against the Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the village of Sur Baher which sits on either side of the Israeli barrier in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would likely wait until after Israel’s Sept. 17 elections to release a peace plan for the region that was designed by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is the main architect of a proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that is designed to create peace in the region.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Tunnel crossing between Lebanon and Israel went 22 stories deep

An opening of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar'it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

ZARIT, Israel (Reuters) – The Israeli army on Monday showed the inside of a sophisticated tunnel passing deep underground from Lebanon into northern Israel, saying it was intended for use by Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

The inside of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar'it in northern Israel June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

The inside of a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, is seen during a media tour organised by the Israeli military near Zar’it in northern Israel June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

The tunnel was rigged with electrical wiring, fuse boxes and communications equipment. An army spokesman said it began almost a kilometer (mile) away inside Lebanon and reached depths of some 80 meters (265 feet) – about the height of a 22-storey building – as it crossed into Israel, near the town of Zarit.

It came to light earlier this year during an army operation in which a number of attack tunnels dug by Iran-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah were discovered and sealed off, the military said.

Hezbollah’s leader, in response to Israel’s tunnel operation, said in January that his group has been able to enter Israel for years. But he stopped short of acknowledging that the tunnels were the handiwork of Hezbollah, citing the heavily armed group’s policy of “ambiguity” on military matters and a desire to deny Israel a pretext to attack.

Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006. While they have at times traded blows within Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the Israel-Lebanon border has mostly been quiet.

Israeli Army Spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus looks at during a media tour organised by the Israeli military inside a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, near Zar'it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

Israeli Army Spokesperson, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus looks at during a media tour organised by the Israeli military inside a cross-border tunnel which Israel said was dug from Lebanon into Israel, near Zar’it in northern Israel, June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Gil Eliyahu

Israel regards Iran as its biggest foe and Hezbollah as the main threat on its borders. It has waged an increasingly open campaign of military strikes against them both in Syria, where they have fought on the government side in the civil war.

(Reporting by Avi Ohayon; Writing by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. concerned over Hezbollah’s growing role in Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: Lebanon's Hezbollah supporters chant slogans during last day of Ashura, in Beirut, Lebanon September 20, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government worries the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon said during a meeting with Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Tuesday, according to the U.S. embassy.

The armed Shi’ite group, which is backed by Iran and listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, controls three of the 30 ministries in Hariri’s new cabinet, the largest number it has ever held. They include the Health Ministry, which has the fourth-largest budget in the state.

U.S. Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, speaking after the meeting, said she had been “very frank … about U.S. concern over the growing role in the cabinet of an organization that continues to maintain a militia that is not under the control of the government”, according to an embassy statement.

Richard, who did not name Hezbollah, said the group “continues to make its own national security decisions; decisions that endanger the rest of the country”.

It also “continues to violate the government’s disassociation policy by participating in armed conflict in at least three other countries”, she said. Lebanon’s official policy of disassociation is intended to keep it out of the region’s conflicts.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Mideast conflicts, including the war in neighboring Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Together with groups and individuals that see its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, Hezbollah won more than 70 of the 128 seats in parliament in an election last year. Hariri, who is backed by the West, lost more than a third of his MPs.

A new unity cabinet, which took nearly nine months to put together, largely reflects the election result.

The United States has supplied the Lebanese military with more than $2.3 billion in assistance since 2005, aiming to support it as “the sole, legitimate defender” of the country. The United States is the largest provider of development, humanitarian and security assistance to Lebanon, Richard said.

“In just this last year alone, the United States provided more than $825 million in U.S. assistance and that’s an increase over the previous year.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Larry King)

‘I need a blanket’: Lebanon winter storm batters refugee tents

Syrian refugee children stand near tents at a makeshift camp at the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Zeina Alhoujeyri

BEIRUT (Reuters) – At a makeshift camp in the Lebanese town of Arsal, refugees are burning their clothes trying to ward off the harsh cold as storms flood their tents.

“We have no fuel at all. People are tearing up clothes, burning plastic, whatever they can find to get warm,” Abdallah Mokdeh said in the border town.

“This is the worst we’ve seen in years.”

Since 2011, more than a million Syrians have fled the war at home to Lebanon, where aid agencies say most live in severe poverty. Tens of thousands are in Arsal near the hills at the border with Syria.

“The roads are blocked. We called an ambulance and it did not come,” said Mokdeh, a refugee who acts as a caretaker for the rows of tents pitched closely together on a patch of earth.

Floods ruined mattresses and destroyed tents, forcing some people to move in with their neighbors. Many were sick or elderly. Some tents already housed three families, he said.

“The snow, the cold have no mercy.”

Mahmoud Hakouk, a 60-year-old Syrian man at the same site, has struggled to stay dry. “I need a blanket,” he said, shivering. “I swear to God I don’t have enough to buy bread.”

The U.N. refugee agency said high winds, rain and snow had “heavily impacted” more than 150 informal settlements, including some that were fully flooded or collapsed. A child was reported missing, it said on Wednesday.

The heavy storm inundated hundreds of tented settlements across Lebanon and left youngsters stranded in freezing temperatures, the charity “Save the Children” said.

“It’s miserable here, we have tents that collapsed because of the intense wind,” said Radwan Raad, standing in the snow at another ramshackle camp in Arsal.

Many of the camp’s residents did not receive U.N. aid and could not afford food every day, he added.

Helem Amer, 85, wrapped herself in a blanket in her flimsy shelter at that camp. “I can’t get up on my own, there’s no fuel, nothing, nobody to help.”

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Laila Bassam; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israeli military begins sealing off cross-border tunnels from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A photo taken during a guided tour by the Israeli army shows a view inside a tunnel which reportedly connects Lebanon and Israel, near the border by the northern Israeli town of Metula December 19, 2018. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday began to seal off four tunnels that it said had been dug by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon.

The work was being carried out on the Israeli side of the frontier demarcation, known as the “Blue Line”, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels with the aim of launching cross-border attacks with backing from its regional sponsor Iran. Hezbollah has yet to comment.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have said they had so far confirmed the existence of four tunnels which the Israeli army discovered in recent weeks in the vicinity of the border.

Conricus said the military would “neutralize and destroy” the tunnels. Some were built with concrete components while others were dug directly into rock,” he said.

“Preliminary work has started,” Conricus said. “We warn anybody against approaching the openings of the tunnels or staying close to them, all of the tunnels, on the Lebanese side.”

He said Israel had asked the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, to convey the warning to the Lebanese army.

“The end result is that Hezbollah will no longer be able to utilize these tunnels in order to terrorize Israeli civilians.”

Conricus said the work was likely to be completed in a matter of hours.

Israel has called for UNIFIL to deal with the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border. The Israeli military has said it holds the Beirut government responsible for breaching Security Council resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war with Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has said Lebanon is committed to implementing 1701.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon. Under the resolution, Lebanon’s army is responsible for security on its side of the border in a zone from which any other armed force, including Hezbollah, is banned.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Stay or go? Syrian refugees face a life-changing choice

A Syrian refugee girl stands near luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – As the bus pulled out of a Beirut car park heading for Damascus, Ahmed Sheikh waved from the window, excited, he said, to be returning home to Syria after years as a refugee in Lebanon.

Sheikh and his two sons are part of a steady trickle of refugees going back as the Syrian government tightens its grip on areas it controls and the prospect of new fighting recedes.

But not everyone wants to go home just yet. While Beirut says 90,000 Syrians have returned this year, more than a million remain in Lebanon, including many who fear reprisals or army conscription, or whose homes were destroyed in the war.

In a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Abu Ibrahim recalled how government shellfire had obliterated his hometown, saying it was too dangerous to return to Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains president.

Whether the millions of refugees outside Syria, like Sheikh and Abu Ibrahim, will return to areas where fighting has ended is becoming a pressing issue in the country and abroad.

Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’ control.

The refugees’ fate is important to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have each buckled under the strain of hosting so many, but also to Europe, where the refugee crisis has caused political ructions. It will play a critical role in shaping Syria’s own gradual economic recovery too.

About half Syria’s pre-war population fled after war broke out in 2011, 6.3 million of them as refugees abroad and 6 million displaced in their own country. Many were forced to flee numerous times.

About a million remain in Lebanon, 3.6 million in Turkey and nearly 700,000 in Jordan, the UNHCR said. One million Syrian children have been born in exile as refugees since the crisis began.

The agency said on Tuesday that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees were expected to go home next year, while around 37,000 returned in 2018, a figure its officials say may not be complete.

GOING HOME

For Sheikh, 46, the decision to return came after a legal problem in Lebanon. His residency permit had expired and he faced a large fine. Police told him he would not have to pay if he agreed to return to Syria.

Still, with the war calmer, he was happy to be going. “There is security here, but living conditions are hard. There is not much work and everything is very expensive,” he said.

He had fled Aleppo with his family in late 2012 after rebels there threatened him, accusing him of links with the government.

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Syria, he owned a bakery and later worked in Lebanon as a baker after making the long, circuitous journey through war-ravaged Syria with his wife and five children.

But he will not go back to his old Aleppo district, ruined in the fighting. He and his sons will stay with his sister in Manbij, which is controlled by local U.S.-backed forces.

His wife and three daughters will not return to Syria yet. The young women have married and had children while in Lebanon.

Returning is complicated. Syrian security checks on those who seek to come back can take weeks. Not all are approved. Important documents may have been lost. Young children may have no passport at all.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have organized numerous returns for groups of refugees who register to go back. Sheikh’s return was one of these.

As he got on his bus, another family group hugged and cried – some staying, some going. A father looked through the window at his wife and disconsolate child who were returning to Syria while he stayed on to work in Lebanon.

STAYING ON

Abu Ibrahim, by contrast, swears he will not take his wife and three children back. He is haunted by the carnage of an early battle that destroyed Baba Amr, their neighborhood of Homs, which they fled by night as bullets sang overhead.

He had a workshop there, repairing televisions. His parents lived nearby, as did his 11 siblings with their families. People in Baba Amr were close-knit. “Everyone used to know each other,” he said.

When protesters marched in 2011, he joined them, though he did not take up arms, and by early 2012, protests had given way to war.

In a fierce assault on Baba Amr, the army shelled his street, which faced the front line. His building took a direct hit, wounding him and his son. A nephew disappeared, presumed among the hundreds killed.

When the bombardment abated, they left by night, braving sniper fire to cross the fields. “The children couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

In a new neighborhood, as the army advanced again, he witnessed summary shootings. The family kept on moving, before paying money to cross into Lebanon.

Abu Ibrahim’s old house and his neighborhood are now rubble – a military zone controlled by army checkpoints. His siblings scattered during the fighting. None stayed in Syria.

In Lebanon, he still fixes electrical goods, going house to house on a motorbike with his toolkit. He makes little money and sees no future there.

But he is alarmed by rumors among the refugees in Lebanon that some who have returned were abused or killed, which Damascus denies. In Syria, his oldest boy, now 16, would soon face conscription. His two-year-old daughter lacks a proper birth certificate or passport.

“I will never go back unless the regime is changed, and especially Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

He wants to go to the West, a journey few manage. Of the million Syrians in Lebanon, only a small number have gained permission to relocate there as refugees.

Others attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Cyprus. In September a boat sank, drowning a child whose family could not face a return to their homeland.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)