Thousands of Militants Return to Syria From Lebanon
More than a hundred buses carrying thousands of Syrian militants and their families left Lebanon Wednesday, completing a cease-fire deal between the Syrians and the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah-run media in Beirut said the Syrians headed for an area of Syria’s Idlib province controlled by rebels fighting against the Damascus government.
The cease-fire ended three years of sporadic fighting between the Syrian jihadists, linked to the al-Qaida terror network and its affiliates, and their Lebanese foes. Six days of intense fighting in Lebanon’s mountainous Jurud Arsal region led to an agreement between the two sides last week to exchange fighters’ bodies and swap prisoners.
The final step this week was the departure of about 9,000 jihadists and civilians, including residents of Syrian refugee camps around the Lebanese town of Arsal. Hezbollah’s media unit, which provided details of how many Syrians were on the move, said they included a top al-Qaida operative known in Syria as Abu Malek al-Talli.
“The Nusra Front was defeated in Lebanon,” Hezbollah’s al-Manar television announced in the Lebanese capital, using an old name for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. More than a year ago al-Nusra Front disbanded and founded a new jihadist-led alliance called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which now controls large swaths of Idlib in northern Syria.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said in a statement on Wednesday it was not involved in the deal between the Syrian and Lebanese militants. It added that refugee returns should “be individual decisions, based on objective information about the conditions in the place of intended return, and made free from undue pressure.”