Lebanon News

Nasrallah calls for plan to repatriate Syrian refugees

Hezbollah fighters man an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a vehicle in Qalamoun. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

BEIRUT: Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah called on the Lebanese state to cooperate with Syrian authorities over the refugee crisis Sunday, as a rebel official confirmed that the party was mediating an agreement that would allow the return of some refugees. “The military victories in Syria and the latest victory in Aleppo, have opened the door toward internal national reconciliation in large areas of Syria, and have transformed large areas ... into safe, calm areas,” Nasrallah said during a televised address at a memorial in the eastern city of Baalbeck for Sheikh Hussein Obeid, a member of the party’s Central Council. “The necessary situation is to cooperate so that most of the refugees go back to their country, to their cities and their villages.”

He called on the authorities to coordinate efforts with Damascus in order to reach a solution to the refugee crisis.

“The Lebanese government ... should decide and seriously study how to make an official decision and institute a discussion with the Syrian government, there are a million and a half or 2 million refugees in Lebanon. How will we handle this issue?” Nasrallah said. “Discuss it, place a singular plan, this is a matter that Lebanon cannot resolve on its own.”

He added that Hezbollah would help the government in whatever capacity it can if called upon to do so.

“We as Hezbollah ... are ready to be at the service of the Lebanese government if it decided to act in a humanitarian and patriotic way in the refugee issue and we are ready to place ourselves at their disposal.”

Lebanon is currently hosting 1.03 million Syrians registered with the UNHCR, though the Lebanese government estimates the number closer to 1.5 million.

Nasrallah also called on politicians to stop using the refugee crisis as a pretext to “beg” for money from the international community, stressing the need to strengthen dialogue with Syria.

The Syrian and Lebanese governments have no formal direct contact, yet they do coordinate on security issues. Hezbollah has denied that the party had rejected the Astana peace talks.

Rival Syrian factions met in the Kazakh capital last month for peace talks sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey. The talks were expected to see the first face-to-face negotiations between the government and the armed opposition since the conflict erupted in 2011, in which more than 300,000 people have died.

However, the rebels refused to meet directly with the government, and Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed that the rebels should take part in U.N.-led peace talks opening in Geneva on Feb. 20.

The next round of Astana talks, set for Feb. 15 and 16, will discuss the cease-fire and stabilization measures for specific areas and other measures ahead of the talks in Geneva.

Nasrallah added that Iran was exerting efforts to reach a political settlement in Syria, saying that his group backs a local reconciliation among Syrians.

“Hezbollah supports not only the cease-fire that was mentioned in Astana, but we strongly support any cease-fire in Syria that is agreed on,” he said. “Hezbollah supports reconciliation and the internal settlements that are happening in Syria ... it had a central an effective role that made the reconciliation work.”

Last week the party’s media spokesperson revealed that the group was actively mediating the return of some Syrian refugees to certain villages in Syria.

An agreement is in the works that would allow refugees to return to secure areas in the Qalamoun region which would be administered by the Saraya Ahl al-Sham rebel faction.

Media spokesperson for Saraya Ahl al-Sham, Abu Ishak, confirmed to The Daily Star that Hezbollah is playing a central role in the process.

“Indirect talks took place first with Hezbollah and the Saraya Ahl al-Sham battalion after negotiations failed with Jabhat Shouhadaa al-Sham last year ... knowing that Saraya Ahl al-Sham is a battalion that is strong on the ground, Hezbollah went ahead and chose Saraya in the negotiations to get back to Qalamoun,” he said. “Hezbollah realized that war is not the solution.”

He added that the exact number of refugees who would be returning has not yet been reached.

“If an agreement is reached then all the Qalamoun people may come in ... under the banner of Saraya even the families coming from the mentioned villages,“ he said. “Saraya is even negotiating for Syrians from outside of Qalamoun asking that they come to the Qalamoun, such as those from Homs.”

Certain villages such as Al-Qastal, Nabak, Deir Attieh, and Qara will not be included in the agreement “as they are located on international highways and their strategic location poses a threat to the regime,” Abu Ishak said.

Hezbollah officially announced its participation in the Syria war alongside regime forces in May 2013 but is believed to have been active there before then. One of its first offensives was an assault on the Qalamoun region that borders Lebanon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 13, 2017, on page 2.

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