By Osama Abu Zeid and Avery Edelman
AMMAN: Dozens of refugees returned from Lebanon to a town in Syria’s Qalamoun region on Saturday, following a reported agreement between town leaders and Hezbollah.
The returnees departed camps in the Arsal area of eastern Lebanon and reached the Syrian town of Assal al-Ward, which lies in the western portion of Qalamoun, a region named for the mountains that straddle the border between Lebanon and Syria.
Hezbollah, a key ally of the Syrian regime, controls most of the Qalamoun region alongside the Syrian army. Other armed groups nonetheless maintain a presence in the mountainous area, among them Saraya Ahl al-Sham – an opposition faction affiliated with the Free Syrian Army – and the Islamic State.
The Lebanese army confirmed in a statement released on Saturday that it escorted about 30 civilian vehicles to the army’s final post along the border, where at least 50 families continued into Syria.
The statement noted that the development was “based on the wishes of a large number of Syrians” residing in the Arsal camps, home to some 100,000 Syrian refugees. It did not provide further details on which parties were involved in coordinating the operation.
A security source in Arsal told Lebanese outlet The Daily Star that the return was the “result of behind-the-scene negotiations between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime on one hand, and armed factions present in the area on the other.”
Negotiations to establish a safe zone for refugees in Qalamoun were first reported in February, when Hezbollah was said to be discussing an agreement with Saraya Ahl al-Sham.
Under the proposed agreement, Saraya Ahl al-Sham would have been responsible for administering and policing a number of communities vacated by pro-government forces while an important highway linking Damascus to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley would remain under Hezbollah control.
Those negotiations stalled, however, and Hussein Abo Ali, a spokesperson for Saraya Ahl al-Sham, insisted in a conversation with the Syrian Voice that his group played no role in the return of residents last weekend, noting that the militia only learned of the plans about 12 hours before the refugees departed Arsal.
Abo Ali instead suggested that Hezbollah has been “negotiating with [Syrian] civilians regarding their return to their homes in Qalamoun.”
Civilians from Assal al-Ward are represented by a town leader known as Abu Taha, a media activist in Arsal who requested anonymity told the Syrian Voice.
Pan-Arab daily Al Hayat describes Abu Taha as a Syrian trader from Assal al-Ward who has ties with all parties involved.
The outlet says he began discussions with Hezbollah several months ago regarding a possible agreement and received guarantees from the group that returnees to Qalamoun would not be drafted to the Syrian army.
One of the civilians who returned to Assal al-Ward told the Syrian Voice on Monday that returning to his town was the “best and only option” he had.
“Since about a year, we have been subject to harassment and we move from one place to another,” he said, adding that refugees are threatened by arbitrary detentions at the hands of both the Lebanese army and Hezbollah.
“All of this pushed me to register to return,” he added.
Upon their arrival to Assal al-Ward, he says returnees were sent to the municipality center where they were received by high ranking officials, among them a Syrian army general and commanders from both the state and military security apparatuses. Elements of the pro-government Qalamoun Shield Brigade were also present.
Returnees were asked to sign a “settlement” before receiving a document clarifying their status as agreed upon in the negotiations.
They were then permitted to go home, he says.
A total of 500 families are expected to relocate from Arsal to western Qalamoun in the coming weeks, local outlets .
Original Arabic article found here.