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)

Israel may expand anti-tunnel operation into Lebanon, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Israeli drilling equipment is seen next to the border with Lebanon, near the Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, seen from the Israel's side December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is prepared to take action in Lebanon against Hezbollah cross-border tunnels if necessary, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

Israel’s military said earlier this week that it had found a number of passages dug across the Israel-Lebanon border to be used in carrying out attacks inside Israel. The Israeli military sent mechanical diggers, troops and anti-tunneling equipment to the border to shut them down.

The Israeli military, which launched the operation on Tuesday, has said its activity would, for now, stop on the Israeli side of the border.

But Israeli news media on Thursday quoted an unnamed senior official saying that Israel could extend its activity into Lebanon, and on Friday Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz reiterated that messages.

“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side – then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Katz told Radio Tel Aviv 102FM.

What form the action would take was not clear. Over the past year, at least 15 tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel were found and destroyed, the Israeli military said.

The United Nations peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), confirmed the existence of a tunnel near the “blue line” frontier between the two countries on Thursday, describing it as a “serious occurrence”.

In the aftermath of the Israeli tunnel announcement, the situation has remained calm on both sides of the border. But the Israeli operation has brought renewed attention to a frontier across which Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006.

The Israeli military said in a statement on Thursday that it “holds the Lebanese government, the Lebanese Armed Forces and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon responsible for all events transpiring in and emanating from Lebanon.”

It added that an Israeli military commander had shown one of the tunnels to the head of UNIFIL, Major-General Sefano Del Col, and it urged UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to clear the area of tunnels.

UNIFIL said in its statement it was “engaged with the parties to pursue urgent follow-up action”.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has instructed the country’s envoy to the U.N. to complain that Israel is waging “a diplomatic and political campaign against Lebanon in preparation for attacks against it”, Hezbollah’s l-Manar TV said.

Since the 2006 war, Israel has largely refrained from striking at Hezbollah on Lebanese soil, but it has carried out dozens of attacks in Syria against what it said were advanced weapons shipments to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, editing by Larry King)

Lebanese Christian civil war foes shake hands, make up after 40 years

FILE PHOTO: Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh, October 31, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Christian rivals from the Lebanese civil war, Samir Geagea and Suleiman Frangieh, shook hands with each other on Wednesday, marking a formal reconciliation to end more than four decades of enmity.

Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) political party, and Frangieh, head of the Marada party, have been foes since the early days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two parties had armed militias during the conflict that battled against each other. The war, which drew in regional powers, included fighting between the country’s main sects and rival factions within those sects.

The men, both Maronite Christians, met to reconcile at the seat of the sect’s Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in Bkerki, north of Beirut. They shook hands with Rai and then with each other after several failed reconciliation attempts over the years.

Geagea has been accused of leading a raid in 1978 on the home of Frangieh’s father, Tony Franjieh, a rival Maronite Christian chieftain, who was killed with his wife, daughter, and others. Geagea has said he was wounded before reaching Frangieh’s house and did not take part himself.

This is the second rapprochement of recent years between civil war Maronite Christian rivals.

In January 2016 Geagea endorsed then presidential candidate Michel Aoun for the Lebanese presidency, ending his own rival candidacy for the position, which must be held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Geagea and Aoun, who fought each other in the 1975-90 civil war, have been on opposite sides of the political divide since Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.

President Aoun is a political ally of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, whereas Geagea is a staunch opponent of the group. Frangieh is a close ally of Syrian President and Hezbollah ally Bashar al-Assad.

Tony Frangieh, Suleiman’s son, said the reconciliation was a good thing for all Lebanese and was not connected to any presidential aims.

“We are looking forward to the future by achieving this reconciliation,” he told Lebanese broadcaster al-Jadeed at the ceremony.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

U.S. cracks down on transnational organized crime including Hezbollah: Sessions

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks to the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice Opioid Research Summit in Washington, U.S., September 25, 2018. REUTERS/Al Drago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said he had designated five groups, including Hezbollah and MS-13, as transnational criminal organizations to target with tougher investigations and prosecutions.

Sessions also said he had designated the Sinaloa Cartel, Clan de Golfo and Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion for the crack down to be carried out by a special new task force.

A special team of “experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering prosecutors” will investigate individuals and networks providing support to Hezbollah, Sessions said

Mostly active in Lebanon, Hezbollah was an outlier on the Attorney General’s list, which was otherwise focused on groups with ties to Latin America.

“With this new task force in place, our efforts will be more targeted and more effective than ever,” Sessions said, explaining that in 90 days task-force members will give him specific recommendations “to prosecute these groups and ultimately take them off of our streets.”

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Netanyahu says Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 16, 2018 Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally.

“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and the Russian army,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a flight to New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly.

Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government against rebels and militants, has said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot its IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target.

Moscow accused Israel of creating dangerous conditions that caused the incident.

Israel, which has carried out air strikes in Syria many times during the civil war, said after the incident it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them.

Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In his remarks on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had agreed with Putin “that the working teams from the IDF and the Russian army will meet soon”.

The Israeli leader made the remarks after convening his security cabinet to discuss the tensions with Moscow.

“Over the past three years, Israel has been highly successful in preventing the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer lethal weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

But he said there had been occasions when things had not gone smoothly, calling Syria’s downing of the Russian plane “tragic”.

Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria, fearing this would hinder its aerial capability to strike the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Syria.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Andrew Roche)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

Several hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon return to Syria

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Tom Perry

ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) – Nearly 400 refugees began leaving the Lebanese border town of Arsal to cross into Syria on Thursday, a rare case of returns which Lebanon’s government wants to encourage.

The convoy made up a very small fraction of the one million registered Syrian war refugees across Lebanon – about a quarter of its population – and of the 50,000 which local officials estimate live in Arsal.

People gathered in minivans and tractors in the morning, loading them with mattresses, water tanks and furniture. Lebanese security personnel recorded the names of Syrians as they passed through a checkpoint on the way out of Arsal.

The refugees were headed for Qalamoun across the border, a region cleared of insurgents by Syrian army offensives in which Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement played a leading role.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Those leaving said they had submitted their names to Lebanese authorities, who in turn sent the names to Syria for approval from the state.

Syrian state TV said hundreds of people arrived past a border crossing in the Damascus countryside.

Many said they were happy to be returning to Syria, and while some said their houses were fit to live in, others had heard their homes were destroyed.

“We have been planning to go back for a long time; we are glad things have calmed down,” said Ali Abdullah, 34, leaving with his wife and two young sons. One of the boys was born in Lebanon and had never been to Syria.

“I want to take him back because that is your country, your (home is) not a tent,” Abdullah told his son. He spoke from the same truck he said he drove across the border in four years ago.

Abdullah told Reuters he had heard from relatives in Syria that his house there was fine.

But Murshid Darwish, 55, said she had decided to stay in her tent in Arsal instead of leaving for Syria with her cousin.

“The house needs work, there are no windows, no doors…We cannot live there,” she said. “I cannot carry rocks…Once my room is fixed, I will go back.”

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was not involved in organizing the returns, and its team in Syria had so far not been able to access the villages where people were headed.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

“FIRST PHASE”

About 140 people received polio vaccines, and the Lebanese Red Cross diagnosed 43 people who received medication for acute cases, it said.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, has said Beirut is working with the Syrian state for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go home.

Ibrahim told Reuters Thursday’s return marked the “first phase out of thousands…We have not received any guarantee that they will not serve in the Syrian army. We have nothing to do with this.”

As Syrian troops and allied forces retake more territory, Lebanese officials have stepped up calls for refugees to go back to parts of Syria where violence has died down.

U.N. officials and foreign donor states have said it is not yet safe for refugees to go back to Syria, where a political deal to end the multi-sided war remains elusive.

The seven-year conflict has driven 11 million Syrians from their homes. More than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says. The Lebanese government puts the number at 1.5 million, a quarter of the population.

They are scattered across Lebanon, often in makeshift camps and severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.

Lebanese Foreign minister Gebran Bassil visited Arsal this month to press for more returns. He froze residency visa applications for UNHCR staff, accusing the agency of preventing Syrian refugees from going back.

UNHCR denies this, saying it supports return when it is safe, and major international donors have voiced dismay at what they called “false accusations”.

“We are working in various ways for the gradual removal of the obstacles that refugees see to their return, including through advocating with the concerned authorities inside Syria,” UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Reuters by email on Thursday.

“We fully respect individual decisions to return when a refugee decides that the time is ripe for him or her.”

(Reporting by Tom Perry with additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Thousands of refugees to return to Syria from Lebanon soon

Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon hold Syrian flags as they arrive at Syrian-Lebanese border of Jdaydet Yabous, Syria, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Around 3,000 refugees in Lebanon are expected to go back to Syria in the coming week, a local official said on Thursday, a week after Lebanon said it was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to return.

The refugees living in a border town in northeast Lebanon will travel around 20 km (12 miles) over mountains that have separated them from their homes in Syria’s western Qalamoun region for years.

Bassel Hujeiri, mayor of Arsal town, told Reuters by phone the refugees had asked to go back to Syria.

As the Syrian army backed by Iran and Russia has recovered more territory, Lebanon’s president and other politicians have called for refugees to go back to “secure areas” before a deal to end the war. This is at odds with the international view that it is not yet safe.

Lebanon hosts around 1 million registered Syrian refugees according to the United Nations, or roughly a quarter of the population, who have fled the war since 2011. The government puts the number at 1.5 million and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.

Hujeiri said the return would likely happen before the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which this year will fall around June 14. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and depends on the sighting of the moon.

Last Thursday, the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim told reporters that Lebanon is working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.

On Wednesday Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked a European Parliament delegation to persuade European nations to help with returning refugees in Lebanon to Syria.

The U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR told Reuters it was not involved in this transfer, but has spoken to some of the refugees as part of its global policy of making sure people who want to return home have the documentation needed to re-establish themselves and access services.

In April, several hundred refugees were bussed back to Syria from the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon in an operation overseen by General Security in coordination with Damascus.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Syria tells Lebanon it wants refugees to return

Lebanese general security member holds Syrian refugee children, who fled to Lebanon, as they wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, Lebanon April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria has told Lebanon it wants refugees to return to help rebuild the country, its envoy to Lebanon said on Monday, after Beirut expressed concern that a new land redevelopment law could discourage them from going home.

Lebanon, which is hosting some 1 million registered Syrian refugees, wrote to the Syrian government last month over “Law 10”, which aid and rights groups fear could result in Syrian refugees losing their property in the country.

“Law 10” came into effect in April as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria. The law has yet to be applied.

One of big concerns with the law is that it gave people just 30 days to stake ownership claims once an area is designated for redevelopment, according to rights activists and aid groups. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said on Saturday this time period had been extended to one year.

Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, had expressed concern over the limited time frame in a letter to the Syrian government last month.

Ali Abdul Karim, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, delivered a letter from Mualem to Bassil, foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, on Monday.

Abdul Karim told reporters that the letter responded to questions posed by Bassil. The letter said that “Syria is in need of … all its sons and is eager for the return of all its sons”, he said.

Last week, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and head of the General Security agency, said Beirut was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.

A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions for returns were not yet fulfilled, and that present conditions were not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.

President Michel Aoun has called the large numbers of Syrian refugees an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will upend the fragile balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.

Amnesty International has said “Law 10” effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the law is not about dispossessing anyone.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lawfare? Syrian development plan alarms refugees and host nations

A Syrian army soldier walks past the rubble of damaged buildings in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new law allowing the Syrian government to redevelop areas devastated by war has alarmed refugees and the countries that host them, prompting fears that people will lose their property and be less likely to return home.

Seven years into the war that has killed half a million people, the law signals the government’s intention to rebuild areas of Syria where the rebellion has been defeated, even though large parts of the country remain outside its control.

“Law 10” came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.

The law allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.

People forced to flee their homes – more than half the prewar population – will find it hard to make such claims, aid groups say.

Many refugees now face a major problem: whether to return home, even if they think it may be unsafe, and claim their property rights in person, or risk losing them, along with a big incentive to go back to Syria in future.

“If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees,” said a briefing note circulated to EU states at a recent high-level meeting.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, said this week that the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Assad says the law has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government. He told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone”.

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

Assad’s opponents already accuse him of engineering “demographic change” by driving rebels and their families out of Syria’s cities, and say the law confiscates property and homes of the displaced.

Amnesty International has said it effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land.

WHY DID SYRIA PASS LAW 10?

Managing the reconstruction of ruined cities, vital for Syria’s economy, will grow more important for Assad if he is to turn battlefield victories into a full restoration of his rule.

Experts on post-war reconstruction have likened it to laws passed in other war zones, notably in Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war.

Assad is banking on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help with reconstruction as Western states say they will not contribute until a political transition is in place.

Western Syria’s main cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – are now entirely in his hands, but apart from Hama they each have entire districts in ruins.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse Assad of conceiving Law 10 to push his opponents from their homes, since Syria’s most damaged areas were major centers of the uprising.

“If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering. Thousands of Syrians – mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad – risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHY WILL IT PARTICULARLY AFFECT REFUGEES?

Many refugees owned property in Syria but they will find it more difficult to stake their claims than people who stayed.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said 67 percent of refugees it had interviewed said they owned property in Syria, but only 17 percent of them still had ownership documents.

Another big worry is the law’s time frame.

Once a local authority announces a redevelopment plan – and none have yet done so – people will have 30 days to submit ownership claims, making them eligible for compensation.

Government supporters say protections for property owners are generous: family members or people given power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absent owners.

But after years of a war in which government buildings have been destroyed along with their files, and in which people have lost identity cards or land deeds as they fled, it could take months to prove who somebody is – let alone what they own.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria, even if they both have all the right documents, takes a minimum of three months. It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were opposition centers.

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE LAW?

Compensation is offered in the form of shares in the redevelopment company, but aid agencies suggest few original occupants will be able to afford the additional cost of new housing within such projects and might come under pressure to sell their property at low prices.

Since many of the most damaged areas were opposition strongholds, many people who left Syria – and relatives who stayed on – might be afraid to appear before government officials to prove ownership.

The law also targets settlements built without formal approval or legal deeds. Owners of such dwellings can be allocated shares on the basis of the assessed value of their building but will not be able to secure compensation for land without proof of ownership, said an expert on the law.

Many property owners have been killed in the war, sometimes without their relatives obtaining death certificates, setting up likely inheritance disputes that would complicate property claims.

Ownership paper trails were also confused after the fighting began in 2011, as families fled one front line after another, taking only what they could carry and selling their property to neighbors. Some properties were bought and sold many times, without proper documentation.

Property owners cannot challenge the designation of an area for redevelopment, and challenges over the value of their property will be settled by the appeal court.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)