ARSAL, Lebanon—As the Assad regime moves to take control of Syria’s last opposition strongholds, the government and its foreign backers are calling on millions of refugees who fled the bloody conflict to come home.
But obstacles the regime is throwing up to their return show that President Bashar al-Assad —mindful of the strain refugees are putting on neighboring countries—is willing to use the exiles as bargaining chips to secure foreign aid and sanctions relief, Western diplomats and analysts in Beirut say.
The Syrian government in recent months has postponed or declined without explanation hundreds of applications from refugees in Lebanon seeking to go back, according to several Western diplomats briefed on the matter.
Returnees need identification and family papers, which many left behind during their flight, and approval to travel in Syrian government convoys. Security-clearance procedures are lengthy. Many men have been rejected, so their wives and children stayed back as well, the diplomats said.
As a result, the returns so far are little more than a trickle. Since early June, in Lebanon, where more than a million Syrians live, only about 1,400 of 3,000 Syrians who have applied to return have departed, including about 1,000 this week, according to the Lebanese intelligence agency. The rest are awaiting word from Damascus on their petition to return.
More than five million Syrians have fled since the uprising began in 2011. Most settled in neighboring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The Assad regime, which is carrying out an offensive in the country’s southwest backed by Russian airstrikes, officially says refugees should return to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.
“The Syrian government wants to use [the refugees] as a bargaining chip,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an independent Beirut-based think tank. “It wants payment and is monetizing them. Not all of which would necessarily go towards reconstruction.”
The Syrian war has pushed millions into neighboring countries since its start in 2011…
Sources: Turkish government, UNHCR (Turkey); UNHCR (all others)
The Syrian government didn’t respond to a request to comment. This month, an unnamed Syrian foreign ministry official told the Syrian state news agency SANA that the regime expects the international community to contribute toward resettling them.
Russia has called on the U.S. and the European Union to help rebuild Syria and resettle refugees. Moscow this month invited the U.S. to cooperate on a plan to return refugees to Syria. The proposals, which were submitted after the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, included collaboration in funding “the restoration of Syria’s infrastructure,” according to the Russian government.
U.S. officials haven’t publicly commented on whether Washington would support the proposal. Top U.S. military officials have said they aren’t changing the U.S. posture in Syria. In a briefing with reporters Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was “considering” meeting with his Russian counterpart.
European countries insist that before they allocate aid through Damascus, or funds to rebuild Syria, a political transition process must be under way, although they haven’t specified whether that would require Mr. Assad’s ouster.
Still, the Syrian regime is looking to leverage the fact that neighboring and European countries are anxious to see the refugees return. Indeed, Lebanon—where Syrian refugees constitute 20% of the population—has complained about the burden of hosting such large numbers of refugees and has prevented the vast majority of them from settling permanently in the country.
The Lebanese government has criticized the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides services for refugees in informal settlements in Lebanon, for instilling fear in the refugees of returning to Syria. The UNHCR says it respects people’s choice to return, but isn’t assisting them in going back.
In Arsal, where refugees number about twice as many as the town’s residents, some 70,000 Syrians live in shabby tarpaulin tents and have few legal rights, including authorization to work. Many speak of harassment and arbitrary arrests by Lebanese authorities. Schooling and health care are poor. Families share toilets that are little more than a hole in the ground.
Samaher Bakor and her husband fled Syria more than five years ago with their two small children and had until recently spent all those years abroad in Arsal. They applied for permission to return to Syria nearly two months ago and sat for days with their meager belongings packed in an old truck as they awaited word. On Monday, they departed for Syria.
“Of course, we are a little scared but my relatives say it’s safe to come back,” Ms. Bakor said before the family left. “In Syria, schools are free, hospitals are free. Here everything requires so much money.”
The refugees who do return face an uncertain fate. Continued fighting in parts of Syria has displaced over 1.2 million Syrians inside the country so far this year, according to UNHCR.
And many fear regime retaliation for having fled the country in the first place. One refugee who departed from Lebanon in June, Hussein Mohammad Audi, was killed shortly after arriving in his hometown of Fleeta. His family said he was shot and dumped at his front door by militias affiliated with the government.
“The regime brands everyone who left Syria a terrorist,” warned Salem Mohammad Rahmoun, another refugee originally from Ras al-Ain in southwest Syria and now living in Arsal.
Two other men, aged 50 and 70, were also killed by regime militia fighters after they returned, Arsal residents said.
The Assad government hasn’t commented on the alleged killings.
Still, many Syrian refugees eventually want to go home.
Two weeks ago, Hussein, a Syrian in his 30s, sneaked across Lebanon’s border with Syria into the no man’s land between the two countries to meet his brother for the first time in seven years. As they embraced, “we both cried,” he said.
Although Hussein, who declined to give his full name, fears punishment from the Assad government for fleeing, he soon hopes to return for good.
“I don’t want my son to grow up in this camp to become some thug robbing people with a razorblade,” he said. “Bashar al-Assad can run me over with a tank as long as my son gets to go to school.”
—Raja Abdulrahim in Beirut and Nancy A. Youssef
contributed to this article.