Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

Syrians prepare to leave their refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley on the eastern border with Syria. (AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018

Few takers for Hezbollah offer to repatriate Syrian refugees

  • A number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents
  • “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters”

BEIRUT: More than 11 days have passed since Hezbollah opened reception centers in Bekaa, a southern suburb of Beirut, and southern Lebanon where Syrian refugees can apply to return to their home country. However, the number of applicants so far has been rather small.
Many of the refugees had one simple question for the Hezbollah officials at the centers: “Will you take us to the Lebanese-Syrian border and dump us there or will you take us to our houses, which you helped destroy, inside Syria?”
Hezbollah opened the repatriation centers in response to the Iranian position, which was later confirmed by Hossein Jaberi Ansari, the Iranian president’s special envoy to Beirut. He said: “One of our top priorities at this stage is the issue of Syrian refugees and ensuring their safe return to their homeland. We cannot discuss a final solution to the Syrian crisis unless refugees are back in their homeland, cities and villages.”
On July 23, about 1,200 people will return from the Lebanese town of Arsal, near the border with Syria, to their homes West Qalamoun.
Arsal Mayor Basil Al-Hajjiri said that the return of this group, the third batch of refugees to go home, comes within the framework of a reconciliation with the Syrian authorities, and in coordination with Lebanese General Security.
He added that it had been initiated by the refugees themselves.
“Most of those refugees do not have identification papers to travel outside Arsal and they acted before Hezbollah urged them to submit applications through the party’s centers, and prior to Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil’s call,” said Al-Hajjiri.
“They have agreed to return in light of the developments in the areas surrounding their homes. Neither Hezbollah nor minister Bassil can make them return if they were not fully convinced of their ability to go back to their homes under safe circumstances.”
A source responsible for Hezbollah’s refugee application center in Hermel said it had received telephone calls from Syrians in Wadi Khaled, northern Lebanon, saying it was difficult for them to get to Bekaa to register but that they want to return to their hometown of Talkalakh, having fled the fighting there.
A Hezbollah official said: “Communicating with those refugees requires certain arrangements on which we are currently working.”
But what guarantees can Hezbollah offer refugees who wish to return?
The official said: “Hezbollah’s mission in Syria has not yet been completed and as long as the threat of terrorists lingers there, Hezbollah will stay no matter the number of fighters.”
The Hezbollah source in Hermel confirmed that they do not provide any reassurances or guarantees to refugees about what might await them upon their return to Syria.
“We take individuals’ and families’ names and promise to secure the transportation of all their belongings, but if their houses were destroyed, we cannot promise to rebuild them,” he said. “We collect applications and submit them to the concerned committee.”
Asked how Hezbollah can reassure refugees of their safety even though the party’s fighters are still operating inside Syria in support the regime against the opposition, the Hezbollah official said: “People fought and reconciled throughout the history of mankind. A reconciliation must take place and I believe it is what refugees want.”
He fears that if the Syrian refugees remain in Lebanon, they may cause a demographic change, pointing out that each of the families that had registered at the center included at least 10 members.
Former member of Parliament Nawar Al-Sahili, who heads the committee formed by Hezbollah to oversee the return of Syrian refugees, said the number of registered families so far does not exceed 150.
“We want to send people back to safe areas, not ones that are still undergoing security developments; repatriation does not include returning to Idlib or Deir Ezzor, for instance,” he said, adding that “the applications will be handed over to the Syrian authorities to be approved.”
As for what awaits refugees who return to Al-Qusayr and its countryside, given that most of them are dissidents who took part in anti-regime demonstrations, Al-Sahili said: “We must find a solution for this issue.”
Arsal Mayor Al-Hajjiri said the information he has been given suggests the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr has been postponed by the Syrian authorities and Hezbollah.
“There is great destruction and people want guarantees that can only be provided by those controlling the territory,” he said.
Al-Hajjiri added that a number of refugees from the town of Flita were reluctant to return after hearing of revenge incidents. He believes the return of refugees to Al-Qusayr and its countryside will require not only a reconciliation but a general amnesty.
He pointed out that the road to West Qalamoun is safe but there is a need for a diplomatic route, which remains impassable for now.

Al-Faw peninsula: 30 years on and the ghosts of the Iraq-Iran war remain

Updated 17 sec ago

Al-Faw peninsula: 30 years on and the ghosts of the Iraq-Iran war remain

  • 30 years on, rewards of recapturing Al-Faw peninsula have failed to emerge
  • Al-Faw, the name given to both the town and the triangular peninsula sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran, sits 100km southeast of Basra.

AL FAW, Iraq: Leaving this Iraqi border town and heading toward the tip of the country’s south-eastern peninsula that juts into the Arabian Gulf, it feels like time was frozen the moment the war between Iran and Iraq ended three decades ago.

The road passes through a narrow, labyrinthine stretch of land next to Shatt Al-Arab, the waterway that separates the two countries. 

Either side are dozens of sprawling palm groves, but as you reach Ras Al-Bisha, the last Iraqi border point, the greenery is replaced by the charcoaled trunks of thousands of trees incinerated during one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. 

Monday marks 30 years since a UN-sponsored cease-fire brought an end to the longest conflict of the 20th century, which saw waves of conscripts sent to their deaths and Saddam Hussein unleashing chemical weapons against his enemy in industrial quantities. Estimates of the death toll for the eight years of bloodshed vary between 400,000 and more than a million. 

In Al-Faw, the memories that haunt the population are exacerbated by the fact that little has been done to revive the area from the horrors that unfolded there. 

Nothing suggests the town, where one of the most fierce and brutal battles of the war laid the cornerstone for the cease-fire agreement, has seen any development or reconstruction since the end of the conflict in 1988. And yet Al-Faw’s strategic location means it should be a crucial hub for the security and economy of the country and the Gulf region.

A handful of damaged government buildings and houses are scattered here and there. A large multifaceted building, which once served as the local hospital, carries Arabic and Persian writing on its heavily damaged walls. 

“These lands are dead because of the explosive materials and the unexploded shells that are still here,” an Iraqi border police officer told Arab News as he pointed to the fields of burned trees.

He said Iraqi forces had cleared some areas of munitions “but did not completely lift all remnants of the war.” 

“There are still tens of thousands of unexploded shells and mines covered by a layer of mud. Sometimes we find five or more shells in one square meter.”

Al-Faw, the name given to both the town and the triangular peninsula sandwiched between Kuwait and Iran, sits 100km southeast of the southern oil hub, Basra. 

Before the war, it was one of the most important towns in the country, hosting energy projects, giant oil depots, a port and platforms to export oil. It was once famous for its dense palm plantations and henna farms, and unique style of buildings.

None of this remains.

Ras Al-Bisha, is the last point of the land where the Shatt Al-Arab reaches the Gulf. It served as a maritime gateway for Iraq to export oil and supervise the entry of ships and boats.

When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in September 1980, Al-Faw was one of the first Iraqi cities to be bombed by Iranian artillery. In some areas the town is less than 400 meters from the Iranian side of the waterway. 

“It was within the range of the Iranian artillery so we were bombed daily,” Walid Mohammed Al-Sharifie, the mayor of Al-Faw, told Arab News.

“A few months later, the Iraqi army forced people to leave the town as it turned into a front line.”

On Sept. 17, 1980, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared his non-compliance with the Algiers agreement, which he had signed in 1975, to demarcate the border between the two countries along the Shatt Al-Arab. 

Five days later, Iraq launched a massive air strike targeting air bases, airports and military facilities inside Iran. The next day, the Iranians launched a counter-attack on vital sites in Baghdad and many other provinces.

The two sides spent the first six years of the war in hit-and-run operations that mostly targeted border towns and villages. They gained the odd foothold in each other’s territory but were unable to hold it for long. Although most of Iraq’s ports were shut down or destroyed because of the war, Iraq received substantial financial and logistical support from several Gulf countries, which also sold Iraqi oil on its behalf. Much of this support was reaching Iraq through the Gulf. 

Controlling Al-Faw had become an urgent goal for the Iranian regime as it sought to deprive Iraq of its sole maritime gateway and force Saddam to accept its’ conditions to end the war.

As a result Iranian forces continued their intensive attacks on the Iraqi border towns along the Shatt Al-Arab. In February 1986, 30,000 Iranian troops overran Iraqi forces fortified in Al-Faw, and occupied the town, causing heavy losses.

In the following five weeks, more than, 52,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed in a series of desperate offensives to retake Al-Faw.

“The Iranian attack stunned us and was not expected,” Maj. Gen. Fouad Hussein, the commander of one of the brigades that fought in southeast Iraq between 1986 and 1988, told Arab News. “They seized the town and we lost more than 1,000 troops in the first 48 hours.

“Our major losses took place during the series of attacks we launched to retake Al-Faw in the first weeks after its occupation.”

The commander said most of the casualties came from Iranian artillery shelling. Under pressure to recapture Al-Faw, large numbers of troops were pushed into the battle through a narrow corridor along the western bank of Shatt Al-Arab, as the other side was too muddy for the soldiers to move easily. The soft salt flats near Al-Faw also made it difficult to move armored vehicles into position. 

Under pressure from the heavy losses, Saddam agreed to stop further attacks, commanders of the former Iraqi army told Arab News. As a result, Iran held the peninsula for more than two years.

In the meantime, Iraq started training special forces in similar terrain near Amara. They were joined by Republican Guard forces, which were the elite in the Iraqi army in terms of training and equipment.

“The biggest and most effective attack” to retake Al-Faw was secretly set for April 17, 1988. 

The plan was to directing a huge barrage of fire on enemy positions “to paralyze its movement from the first moments,” Gen. Majid Al-Sari, a former artillery battalion officer who took part in the battle, told Arab News.

“In the first 45 minutes of the attack, more than 1,000 artillery and rocket launchers opened fire, targeting the Iranians’ positions.”

“Thirty minutes later, 150 tanks joined the attack, in addition to dozens of helicopters and jets.”

The Iraqi leadership said the liberation of Al-Faw did not take more than 35 hours. Commanders involved said there was no direct fighting because the intensive firepower did all the work.”

Many reports say Saddam’s forces killed hundreds of Iranian troops with chemical weapons during the offensive.

The Iraqi forces carried the momentum of the Al-Faw victory to push east and retake the rest of the land captured by Iran.

Less than four months later, the war ended and the two sides agreed to stick to the terms of the Algiers Convention. After eight years of slaughter, neither side had achieved its objectives and the border remained in the same position.

By the end of the war on Aug. 20, 1988, not much remained in the center of Al-Fawr — a mosque with a damaged minaret, a partially damaged school and a small, old and crumbling cafe on the edge of the water. The rest was completely devastated.

The Iraqi authorities did not allow people to go back to their homes in the town. They redesigned the center of Al-Faw and limited reconstruction campaign to government departments.

“We were not allowed to go back to Al-Faw until 2003 (after the US invasion), Abduladhaim Salman, a resident, told Arab News. “They told us it was still a sensitive military area and not all people were allowed to go back.

“When we came back, there was nothing around but the main streets and the governmental buildings. I could not even recognize the site of our house.”

Local officials in Al-Faw told Arab News that no more than 50,000 people out of 300,000 have come back to live in Al-Faw.

“We have found out that some (Iraqi) officials in Baghdad have no idea where our town is located. They think it is a village on the border and there is no reason to pay attention,” Abid Ali Fadhil, head of Al-Faw local council, told Arab News.

“Even the water has turned salty and the land mines have stopped the work of companies working in the field of desalination.

“So why would people come back to Al-Faw? It is a dead town.”