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What’s behind Hezbollah’s safe zone project in Syria's Qalamoun?

A Hezbollah deal that is reportedly being discussed with the Syrian opposition for the repatriation of Syrian refugees into safe zones in Syria would face steep hurdles in negotiating with the Lebanese government.
A Lebanon Hezbollah fighter carries his weapon as he stands in Khashaat, in the Qalamoun region after they advanced in the area May 15, 2015.  When Lebanon's Hezbollah first joined Syria's war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, its role was a closely guarded secret. Today, as Hezbollah plants its flag in land won from rebels north of Damascus, its role could hardly be more public. Picture taken May 15, 2015. To match Insight MIDEAST-CRISIS/SYRIA REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir


As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces consolidate their authority over Syria, the armed factions on both sides of the conflict are now under pressure to bolster their holdings in anticipation of a looming political settlement. As part of the rising trend, regime ally Hezbollah may be looking to secure its influence in western Syria through the negotiation of a new deal, but is struggling to progress with the endeavour.

In a report published by The New Arab on Feb. 10, a Hezbollah official declared Hezbollah's plan to establish a safe zone in Qalamoun, where Syrian refugees could soon be relocated from neighboring Lebanon.

The first draft of the deal proposed 24 terms to be negotiated between Hezbollah and a militia in Qalamoun known as Saraya Ahl al-Sham. Syrian journalist Ahmad al-Quasir, who has been following the situation closely, recently told Al-Monitor that Saraya Ahl al-Sham was established by local opposition forces in 2015 and is linked to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Under the initial terms of the agreement, Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces would vacate the areas of Qalamoun where Saraya Ahl al-Sham is present. Saraya Ahl al-Sham would also create local committees responsible for the administration and policing of their communities.

Excluded from the deal would be several Christian-majority villages along the M-5 highway. The road, which serves as an important supply corridor for Hezbollah linking Damascus to the group’s stronghold in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, would be open to traffic to and from Syria and Lebanon.

The arrangement also would provide major incentives to draw refugees back to Qalamoun. Most notably, returnees would be issued identification documents after screening by local authorities. New papers would be hugely beneficial to the over 70% of Syrian refugees who no longer have valid national ID cards, without which they cannot travel, get married or obtain legal residency in host countries.

Returnees who join Saraya Ahl al-Sham’s brigade would also be exempt from conscription into the Syrian Arab Army even if they had previously fled Syria to escape the draft. They could return without punishment if they join Saraya Ahl al-Sham.

Quasir said renewed discussions of safe zone initiatives along the Turkish and Jordanian borders, following the recent endorsement of the United States, was a key motivator for the proposed deal. Quasir said Hezbollah first submitted the draft agreement in an effort to beat the international community to the most practical area for a Lebanese-Syrian safe zone, thereby determining the framework for itself.

“Hezbollah is trying to establish tailored safe zones in Qalamoun so that things would not spin out of control. In the presence of safe zones, neither the regime nor Hezbollah would be in control. Only the international coalition and the international organizations would be in control. Hezbollah may be anticipating this step,” Quasir noted.

However, a source within Saraya Ahl al-Sham who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity in March said the group rejected several terms of the first draft for varying reasons, including a proposed reconciliation with a pro-regime militia.

“The agreement was put on hold because Hezbollah took the negotiations to square one and set March 2 as a deadline for the negotiations,” the source explained. “The terms sent by Hezbollah with the last delegation to negotiate with Saraya Ahl al-Sham dignitaries were refused.”

Quasir explained why the deal is now on hold. “One of the reasons the initiative was refused is that it stipulates that Hezbollah shall have offices in Qalamoun, that reconciliation shall be achieved and that Syrian regime police stations and recruitment divisions shall be established. Saraya Ahl al-Sham refused this.”

In an article from The Daily Star on Feb. 11, Hezbollah parliament member Nawwar Saheli confirmed that the deal would also need to be approved on an international level. “It won’t be formal until the Lebanese government contacts the Syrian government. For now, it’s indirectly between Hezbollah and opposition groups,” said Saheli.

While Lebanese politicians have largely ignored the issue of repatriation, it could prove to be cause for further division within Lebanon’s fractious government. Newly appointed Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merhebi denied any connection to the Hezbollah plan and called for the group to withdraw from Syria to facilitate refugees’ repatriation.

“We don’t have any role and we don’t support any issue about this negotiation. It is a problem that Hezbollah went into Syria,” Merhebi told Al-Monitor. “[Hezbollah] invaded Syria, they burned the houses and cut the trees over there and did some massacres. Those people fled from Syria and came to Lebanon. The main issue [is] that everybody should call Hezbollah to return to Lebanon, so, directly, I hope that the Syrian refugees will go back to their land and their country.”

Merhebi added that the Lebanese government would defer to United Nations leadership with regard to any future repatriation of Syrian refugees. “We don’t trust Hezbollah; we don’t trust the Syrian regime. The only trustworthy party is the UN. The UN has to take action about this issue, and we will support the UN in whatever decision it might take.”

Given the UN’s current position against returning refugees to Syria, Hezbollah’s relocation deal would face steep hurdles in negotiations with the Lebanese government. UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman reiterated to Al-Monitor, “We don’t think conditions are conducive for return at the time being.”

Syrian refugee and lawyer Ibrahim Sadek, whose name has been changed for his safety, told Al-Monitor that most refugees hope to return to Syria but remain skeptical of the promises on offer from Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. “I go daily around the camps and deal with refugees. Even the towns that were suggested and mentioned by name in this deal, like the villages of Qalamoun — most of them [the refugees from these towns] have security and safety concerns. There is no trust at all with any of the guarantees offered by Hezbollah. People need real guarantees,” said Sadek.

“What would guarantee for the refugee that the Syrian Arab Army, aka the regime’s army, would not arrest them? What guarantees that Hezbollah wouldn’t re-enter again and siege people in their own towns?” he asked.

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