Hezbollah Emerges Winner in Latest Syrian Refugee Exchange Deal

Lebanese organization likely to make political capital out of agreement with Syrian Al-Qaida fighters

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The convoys of buses that came from Syria to the isolated town of Arsal in the Lebanon Valley on Wednesday began to transfer thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanese territory to Idlib in Syria. Ostensibly another refugee exchange, of the type that has been taking place in recent years in various parts of Syria, was successfully concluded.

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But the Arsal deal has some characteristics that distinguish it from other exchanges, like the ones implemented in Aleppo, Zabadani, or on Syria’s northern border. Arsal served as a refuge for more than 100,000 Syrian refugees who came there during the first year of the Syrian civil war, and from there many moved to other cities in Lebanon. Its proximity to the Syrian border and the homes from which they fled made that destination particularly attractive, especially since they expected the war to end quickly so they could then make a short trip home.

This hope was dashed, of course, and the area continued to absorb more and more refugees who instead of finding refuge, found themselves under heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime, which a few times even took control of the city and later continued to shell it, killing and wounding hundreds. In 2014 the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliate, arrived, later changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It was the first time a Lebanese town had been conquered by a Syrian militia and it created a violent front within Lebanon.

For the past three years the Lebanese Army clashed with the Syrian Al-Qaida fighters, but this year Hezbollah decided to take the initiative and launched a broad attack on the city and its refugees in an effort to sweep them and the Al-Qaida men out of Lebanon. But it could not defeat them and Hezbollah then opened negotiations with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It was only this week that the complex negotiations ended with the signing of an agreement that included, among other things, the exchange of prisoners and the bodies of fighters between Hezbollah and the militia, the removal of some 10,000 refugees to Idlib, which serves as a central gathering place for the fighters of all the militias, and primarily the removal of the Al-Qaida fighters from Lebanese territory.

Hezbollah fighters are seen escorting buses in Jroud Arsal, Lebanon August 2, 2017. Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

What’s new about this agreement is that it’s the first refugee-exchange agreement to which the Syrian regime was not a partner. The negotiations were initiated by Hezbollah, which had also carried out most of the military attacks against the fighters of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Although Arsal is in Lebanese territory, the Lebanese military played only a secondary role; it received the returning Hezbollah prisoners and bodies and is now meant to secure the border to prevent the Al-Qaida fighters from returning. The other interesting thing is the exchange ratio set by Hezbollah, under which it got eight prisoners and bodies for every 120 Al-Qaida fighters permitted to return to Syria (in addition to thousands of refugees).

But what looks like a bad deal for Hezbollah in terms of numbers yielded the group large dividends on Lebanon’s domestic political scene. The decision by the Lebanese government not to intervene in the battles in Arsal, on grounds that some of the territory there isn’t Lebanese but Syrian, or at least in dispute, gave Hezbollah a free hand to deal with the region as it saw fit, in coordination with Syria. The Lebanese government also refused to conduct negotiations with the Syrian regime on returning the Arsal refugees, since it was responsible for them so long as they were in Lebanese territory and there was no guarantee they’d be safe in Syria. Lebanon also insists that the Syrian refugee problem be resolved as part of a comprehensive solution to the Syria crisis.

But these decisions, which preserved Lebanon’s prestige, served Hezbollah well, as it took responsibility for the negotiations as if it was the Lebanese government and even got the Lebanese military to cooperate with the agreement that was reached. This move by Hezbollah may not have any far-reaching strategic consequences from a military perspective, other than distancing Al-Qaida from the Lebanese border, but the organization will know how to make political capital out of it when the time comes to discuss the security zones in the areas adjacent to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Russia is continuing to promote the implementation of the security zone agreements that were signed in principle in May, with Russian forces already policing in southern Syria. Here we can expect a tough diplomatic struggle between Russia and Turkey, because the militias concentrated in Idlib want Turkey to be involved in its security zone, not just Russia. The Kurds, however, object to this because they see Turkish involvement as an effort to eliminate the Kurdish forces. As a result, Russia will try to create these security zones in stages.

Russia’s aim is to get to the sixth round of talks with Iran and Turkey at the end of the month in Astana, the Kazakhstan capital, ready to turn the detailed draft on setting up three more security zones into an agreement. Two years after Russia began direct military intervention in Syria, it has not only succeeded in creating a strategic reversal in the position of Syrian President Bashar Assad, it has reduced the influence of Iran, shoved the United States out of the diplomatic negotiations, and has built itself a military and diplomatic base in Syria that will serve it in the entire Middle East.

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