The Cynical Ploy in Hezbollah Taking Charge of Repatriating Refugees to Syria

Haid Haid

The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, recently announced that his party will take the lead in repatriating Syrians refugees from Lebanon. While the group hinted that its efforts will be coordinated with Lebanese security forces, it may in fact be in sole charge. Either way, the announcement sent a clear message: Hezbollah is increasing its political influence in Lebanon as its works to further Bashar Al Assad’s interest in Syria and abroad.

Hezbollah has set up registration centers, phone lines and social media accounts to expedite the return of the refugees. Nine centers have been established in Hezbollah-controlled areas in southern Lebanon, the Bekaa valley and in Dahieh to process requests from refugees willing to return. Potential returnees then will be vetted by security officials in Syria. Once done, the refugees’ journey back will be coordinated with the Lebanese armed forces. After that phase is concluded, Hezbollah will try to convince more reluctant refugees to return – though it is not yet clear what it will do to change their minds. The worry is that Hezbollah will force the refugees to return against their will.

By taking charge of returning the Syrian refugees, Hezbollah aims to undercut efforts by domestic rivals to challenge it in Lebanon, where the refugees are demonized and a top political issue.

Hezbollah has long portrayed its military intervention in Syria as a preemptive measure to protect Lebanon from radical groups operating there, namely Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS. But Hezbollah nevertheless has not been entirely successful in convincing Lebanese – outside its immediate support base – that it is fighting in Syria for anyone but its own interests. In an effort to change that perception, Hezbollah last year carried out military operations to clear the Lebanon-Syria border area of both ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra fighters. The group’s action, which did help to increase security in Lebanon’s border towns, apparently reduced some public unhappiness against the party.

Now, Hezbollah is hoping that its new efforts to repatriate Syrian refugees will help it accrue greater popularity in Lebanon. Hezbollah wants to portray the repatriation as a result of its military intervention in Syria. It wants to advance the argument that supporting the regime as it makes gains against insurgents creates the right condition for the refugees’ return. In other words, that helping Al Assad win is just as much a win for Lebanon.

Lebanon currently hosts just under one million registered Syrian refugees, and they account for over 20 percent of the population in the country. That high number, coupled with the country’s limited infrastructural capacity and the increased competition for services and resources, have all made the issue of sending back Syrian refugees a top national priority. To that end, Hezbollah wants to be at the center of this process, in order to use it as leverage to further advance its political dominance in Lebanon.

Yet, for all that, the decision for Hezbollah to take charge of the repatriation did not come from Hezbollah itself. It came from Damascus.

Nasrallah announced the group’s plans a day after several hundred Syrian refugees left the Lebanese border town of Arsal for areas around Damascus. But the real impetus is to be found in the Syrian regime’s refusal to allow another group of several hundred to return. Its rejection of those refugees was to protest Lebanon’s attempts to use the issue for political and economic purposes. But more importantly, Damascus was unhappy that coordination over those refugees’ planned return was conducted through security channels, rather than diplomatic ones.

The regime’s insistence that Hezbollah should be in charge of the repatriation is a means of restoring a semblance of an active diplomatic channel involving Damascus – and the fig leaf of legitimacy for Al Assad as a diplomatic interlocutor – given that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. In addition, it shows other countries, whether in the Middle East or in Europe, that restoring diplomatic channels with the Syrian regime will be a prerequisite to the repatriation of Syrian refugees.

At the end, Nasrallah’s decision to start a large-scale refugee repatriation program is premature and risky. United Nations agencies and human-rights organizations have all said that proper conditions for the refugees’ return are not yet fulfilled, as this requires a fair and just political deal to end the violence. But if the repatriations are going to proceed regardless of the dangers, the international community should at the very least increase efforts to ensure that independent observers have access to Hezbollah’s registration centers and that the refugees’ returns are voluntary.

The international community has a duty to protect the refugees, as best it can, from what harm may come from the cynical purpose for which Hezbollah and Al Assad are attempting to use them.

Haid Haid is a research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is also a consulting research fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.