The border wall demarcating the end of Jordanian territory (right) and the beginning of the Free Zone that lies along the Syrian-Jordanian border (left). Photo by Waleed a-Noufal.
AMMAN: Dozens of Syrian refugees returned to their homes in the southwestern suburbs of Damascus late last month, in the first returns from Jordan seemingly organized with the tacit coordination of authorities in Damascus, two of the organizers of the operation told Syria Direct.
According to two members of the local Syrian committee coordinating returns, based in Moadamiyet a-Sham on the outskirts of Damascus, a bus carrying at least 25 Syrian refugees crossed the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing between Jordan and Syria bound for Damascus on December 27.
The crossing marks the first organized return of Syrian refugees from Jordan, some three months after Syria and Jordan agreed to reopen the Jaber-Naseeb crossing in mid-October.
According to a list of names gathered by the town’s committee, and seen by Syria Direct, more than 100 Syrian refugees originally from Moadamiyet a-Sham had registered their names with the coordination committee, intending to return from Jordan.
Mohammad Hamra, a resident in Moadamiyet a-Sham who says he has been responsible for facilitating similar returns from Lebanon in recent months, also told Syria Direct that 100 people had received permission to return, though less than half ended up boarding the bus.
At the time of return, however, he said only 47 people ended up boarding the bus from Jordan.
Another member of the committee organizing the returns, former opposition negotiator Mahmoud al-Khateeb, set the number at 25.
Hamra, who was previously displaced to Lebanon, initially coordinated the return of 40 other Moadamiyet a-Sham residents—including himself—back in July, and told Syria Direct he has since facilitated returns of hundreds of refugees from Lebanon.
While the infrastructure for returns from Jordan remains in its infancy compared to Lebanon, where thousands have returned since April last year, Hamra expects more Syrian refugees in Jordan to register in the near future.
“People are always afraid of the first time,” he explained, claiming that groups of refugees returning from Lebanon were initially very small though numbers quickly grew.
Hamra expected that up to 400 Syrian refugees could register to return from Jordan in the next batch of returns, but did not elaborate on further details, let alone a timeframe.
While a UNHCR spokesperson could not comment on the specifics of particular returns, they did acknowledge that the UN agency—in coordination with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Jordanian government—has transported several groups of refugees, who’ve expressed a desire to go home, up to the border prior to them returning. The agency does not help refugees cross, or continue their journeys on the Syrian side.
There have been “seven convoys over the last seven weeks,” with the latest taking place on January 16, the spokesperson told Syria Direct on Wednesday, clarifying that UNHCR and partners facilitate transportation to the border for refugees who cannot afford the trip themselves.
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Cars in line to cross the Jordanian-Syrian border on Wednesday. Photo by Laith Joneidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty.
‘The bazaar for returns has opened’
The Moadamiyet a-Sham committee organizing returns from Lebanon and now, for the first time, Jordan, was originally formed as a local reconciliation committee in 2016, negotiating for the town’s transition from opposition to government control, including evacuations of more than 1,600 rebel fighters, their families and local civilians toward Syria’s northwest.
Moadamiyet a-Sham, a farming town several kilometers southwest of central Damascus, fell to opposition control after 2012. For four years, pro-government forces besieged Moadamiyet a-Sham, subjecting it to regular bombardment as well as a reported chemical weapons attack in 2013 that killed hundreds of people.
It was among the first Damascus suburbs to undergo a forcible evacuation deal, shortly after neighboring Daraya, in 2016.
Soon after the siege was lifted, with unreconciled fighters and civilians evacuated north to Idlib province, the town’s reconciliation committee began to facilitate the return of internally displaced residents previously scattered across Syria, said al-Khateeb, who was also member of the reconciliation committee at the time.
According to al-Khateeb, the committee is already preparing for the return of another group of refugees from Jordan and intends to begin a similar process in Egypt as well.
“The bazaar for returns has opened,” he added.
It remains unclear to what extent the Syrian government—or its web of mukhabarat (intelligence) agencies and security branches—is involved in facilitating returns that, according to committee members at least, are purely civilian in nature.
Before returns go ahead, the committee reportedly collects the names of displaced residents who want to return before submitting names to authorities, including security branches. Authorities then review each name and notify the committee about which refugees have a “clean file” and are free to return.
Syria Direct could not independently verify which arm of the Syrian security apparatus was responsible for this process in Moadamiyet a-Sham—although at least one source pointed to the National Security Office of the Syrian army’s 4th Division.
“The names that have an ‘X’ [next to them] are not supposed to return,” Hamra said, referring to Syrians displaced outside the country who—whether as a result of perceived anti-government political activities or unresolved military service files—are wanted by the Syrian government.
Those wanted by the government will need to “settle their status” with the government before returning.
But at present, no such mechanism is in place in Jordan.
According to the list of names seen by Syria Direct, five out of around one hundred names have a tell-tale blue ‘X’ beside them in addition to one name with a note saying “dodged mandatory [military service].”
For those who are not wanted by the government—or at least for men aged 18-42—only one condition applies upon return: mandatory military service for those who have not yet completed it. However, Hamra assures that returnees are granted a six-month grace period upon return.
Even so, most of the returnees were women and children, according to committee member al-Khateeb.
Syria Direct reached out to several residents who were still residing in Moadamiyet a-Sham at the time of the returns last month, but was unable to reach anyone.
According to one former resident, currently in Turkey, returnees are almost impossible to get in touch with.
“They refuse to talk to anyone…out of fear,” he said, adding that he himself lost contact with some of his relatives once they returned to the Damascus suburb from Lebanon.
‘Heading into the unknown’
Former Moadamiyet a-Sham resident Samir Hassan, who asked that his real name be withheld in this report, says he is well aware that he is wanted by the government. Still, that didn’t stop him from submitting his name to the committee about a month ago.
“I know that I am heading into the unknown,” he told Syria Direct over WhatsApp voice messages from Jordan. “But living here is hard.”
“My children have had to leave school and work in order for us to get by.”
Hassan is still waiting to hear back from the committee, although this is not the first time he registered to return.
The last time he applied, Hassan explained, it took two months before he eventually got what he understood to be a rejection via the committee. “Pending,” read the ambiguous reply.
Even so, Hassan remains hopeful that he will be able to return eventually.
“The committee promised me that the results would be positive [this time],” he said.
According to UNHCR statistics, 6,709 Syrians returned from Jordan between mid-October, when the Jaber-Naseeb border crossing reopened, and early January this year. And up until this point, returns have been on an individual basis.
Both committee members, Hamra and al-Khateeb, said that there is currently no coordination with Jordanian authorities.
“Currently, things are easy with Jordan,” Hamra told Syria Direct. “There’s no need for coordination.”
Jordanian government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
For some, return remains ‘impossible’
Since 2016, the Syrian government and its allies have gradually managed to assert control over the majority of the country—often through the kind of forcible evacuation deals imposed on rebel-held areas including Daraya and Moadamiyet a-Sham.
At the same time, the pressure on Syrian refugees to return home from neighboring countries and Europe has increased, with the Syrian government repeatedly calling for displaced Syrians around the world to return.
In 2017, the Lebanese government—as well as Lebanese Hezbollah—began coordinating with authorities in Damascus to facilitate returns back across the border into government-held areas of the country.
Returns from Lebanon have continued steadily since then, including to Moadamiyet a-Sham. In August 2017, the Lebanese army—again with backing from Hezbollah—attacked and cleared remaining pockets of hardline Islamist fighters from Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS) along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Scattered groups of refugees have returned back to Syria from Lebanon since then.
The Lebanese government claims that as many as 55,000 refugees have returned back across the border, whether as individuals and families, or through organized returns brokered by the Lebanese government in collaboration with Syrian security agencies. Returnees point to increasingly harsh living conditions, harassment and tightening policies as reasons for choosing to return.
At least 2,000 Syrians are estimated by other sources to have returned from Lebanon since April last year.
UNHCR meanwhile maintains that conditions for return to Syria are still unsafe.
And despite the recent returns, not all Moadamiyet a-Sham residents feel comfortable with the thought of returning.
The parents of 28-year-old Abdulrahman al-Moadamani are currently in Moadamiyet a-Sham on a visit to assess the situation and check on the family’s home. While the family’s living situation in Jordan is currently “okay,” he said, his parents do want to return to Syria eventually.
Al-Moadamani meanwhile, who asked that his real name be withheld for security reasons, finds it highly unlikely that he will return. Still of military age, he fears he “will be dragged to the army right away,” should he go back home to Syria.
“It’s impossible that I’ll go.”