Last Monday saw the Lebanese-Syrian border fill with ambulances and buses in anticipation of a swap and trade between Hezbollah and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Front for fighters and refugees.
The exchange was postponed until Tuesday but continued with the transfer of eight soldiers from Lebanon’s militant group, Hezbollah, with five corpses for a mix of 9,000 Syrian refugees and fighters, along with nine bodies of the Al-Qaida affiliated group, formerly known as the al-Nusra front.
The deal, brokered by the Lebanese internal security agency, followed an offensive last week by Hezbollah and Syrian government forces in the mountainous border area in Syria’s northwest Idlib province leading to a ceasefire to allow for the movement of “refugees, fighters, and family members.“
These kinds of ceasefire deals have been seen throughout rebel-held regions of Syria in the past year and have allowed the Syrian regime, under Bashar Al-Assad, to continue to reclaim more lost territory.
Separately, the deal also evacuated members of the Levant People’s Brigade rebel group where the fighters will go to the government town of Ruhiabia and return to civilian life.
According Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, “This is the first time that we’re seeing a deal which would see such a large number of Syrian refugees and fighters who are opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and have been in open conflict with Hezbollah and Lebanese forces, exit the area and go to another area in Syria.”
Meanwhile, the civil war, which began in 2011, has seen nearly 11 million citizens or half of Syria’s pre-war population have to flee their homes. As well, some 1.5 million currently reside in Lebanon and make up a quarter of the country’s population.
The influx of refugees has put considerable strain on Lebanon’s economy and infrastructure, with many Syrians living in slums along the border. The news of some refugees beginning to return will be greeted as welcome news for many in the country.
Despite this, the UN refugee agency was attempting to contact refugees returning in an attempt to ensure that this return is voluntary with spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled saying, “UNHCR believes that conditions for refugees to return in safety and dignity are not yet in place in Syria.”
With that said, the war in Syria continues to drag on in its sixth year and, while many areas have seen ceasefires and deals, such as this, there appears to be no end in sight. In addition, and more worrisome for all involved, is that all major players in the civil war have no published aims for what to do after the defeat of ISIL in the country or on how to deal with all of the competing factions and claims that still hold portions of the country.
Thus, even once ISIL has lost its last major city in Raqqa, the country remains fractured with competing Kurdish, rebel, and governmental holdings, all of whom wish for a very different image of post war Syria. As such, for the civilians of Syria, unfortunately, the glimmer of stability that this deal brings does not appear to provide nationwide peace for many years to come.