How Many Syrians Have Returned? As Conflict Subsides, More Come Home

With the widespread violence that once gripped Syria now largely limited to pockets of ongoing tensions between clashing factions, questions have arisen as to the fate of millions of people who have fled their homes either within the country or abroad throughout seven and a half years of conflict. Though many have chosen not to come back, an increasing number of Syrians are returning.

Dozens of Syrians entered their home country from Lebanon on Thursday, the latest wave of refugees to return via buses provided by the Syrian Ministry of Transport, according to the Beirut-based The Daily Star. The journey was facilitated by a deal between Lebanon's General Security and the Syrian government, which has reasserted control over much of the country since facing a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising backed by the U.S. and its regional allies.

The new returnees, who join up to 50,000 this year as estimated last month by Lebanese Major General Abbas Ibrahim, come about a week after U.N. International Syria Support Group chairman Jan Egeland said he was assured by Russia that Syria had officially withdrawn "Law 10," a presidential decree issued in April that allows authorities to designate redevelopment zones across the war-torn country.

Criticized as a means for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to keep out those who fled, Law 10 was widely condemned by rights groups and Egeland said its alleged repeal meant "diplomacy can win—even in Syria," according to the Associated Press. While some, such as experts cited Thursday by UAE website The National, have said there were other ways the government could manipulate property rights, the lull in fighting has allowed life to return to normal in some parts of Syria.

A young Syrian child peaks out of a bus window with a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as fellow refugees prepare to leave the Lebanese capital Beirut in order to return home to Syria, September 4. At least tens of thousands of Syrian have returned to their country as the government re-asserts control over territory once held by rebels and jihadis. ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's 2015 intervention on Assad's behalf helped the Syrian armed forces and its allies, including a number of Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias, retake vast stretches of land from insurgents and militants seeking to overthrow the government. By this time, the U.S. had become more focused on defeating the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), the most powerful militant group to emerge from the ongoing unrest in Iraq and Syria, and Assad has been able to reclaim most of the country in the years since.

As the Syrian military regained control over enclaves on the outskirts of Damascus not held by the government since the early days of the war—and defied Western airstrikes that came in response to allegations of chemical weapons attacks—the passage of Law 10 raised longstanding fears at home and abroad that Assad may use the widespread destruction to his advantage.

The Syrian president himself defended the law in an interview with Cypriot newspaper Kathimerini in May, claiming "we cannot dispossess anyone of their property by any law, because the constitution is very clear about the ownership of any Syrian citizen" and that the law was devised "to replan the destroyed and the illegal areas" of the country. He argued that the prevailing notion of the law as a tool to gerrymander his population could have been fashioned "in order to rekindle the fire of public opinion in the West against the Syrian government."

In any case, outlets in the West have increasingly reported on the resurgence of commercial and cultural activity in the country. Last month, CNN interviewed citizens of Damascus rebuilding the capital, while at the same time demanding a more open political system from the government. NBC News covered Aleppo's reconstruction "in full swing" in August, nearly two years after it was the scene of one of the conflict's most vicious engagements.

The previous month, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians following a reconciliation deal in the southern province of Daraa. Such agreements have been struck nationwide while a fatigued uprising gives in to the government and its international backers. These arrangements, which have led to population transfers, and the continued flight of Syrians from certain regions have made calculating the true figures of the war all the more difficult.

Syrian flags hang from a building as workers rebuild destroyed stores in Harasta, on the outskirt of the Syrian capital Damascus on July 15. - After a blistering weeks-long assault, Syria's government recaptured the town of Harasta in March, and displaced families have been trickling back to check if their homes survived, while refugees abroad worry if their property rights remain intact. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Since mass protests and a government crackdown devolved into civil war in Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed and potentially up to 10 million more have resettled either elsewhere in the country or in dozens of other nations across the globe. Russia has spearheaded efforts to facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. The U.S. has so far refused to cooperate with the Syrian government, which it accuses of war crimes.

The Russian Ministry of Defense's latest Bulletin of the Centre for Refugee Reception, Distribution and Settlement posted Friday said via its official Facebook page that "in total 252,121 Syrians have returned back to their homes from abroad (75,637 women, 128,541 children)" since Russia entered the war on September 30, 2015. In the same time period, "in total 1,242,814 IDPs have returned back to their homes in the Syrian Arab Republic (373,620 women, 633,424 children)."

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees reported in June of last year that some 440,000 IDPs returned home in the first six months of 2017 alone and that "260,000 refugees have spontaneously returned to Syria, primarily from Turkey into northern Syria." According to the latest UNCHR figures, updated at the end of last month, the agency says that it has monitored 107,871 "self-organized returns" since 2015, with UNCHR spokesperson Salam Shahin explaining that the June 2017 number "may relate to some temporary returns from Turkey or refer to another movement."

"While there are returns, there's also new internal displacement driven by the fighting inside the country," UNCHR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told Newsweek, while Shahin further said that "the number of returns of Syrian refugees remains low, especially when compared to overall Syrian refugee numbers."

Shahin emphasized that the agency's position "is that refugee repatriation should be based on a voluntary decision by refugees to return—meaning not coerced to leave their countries of asylum" and that the organization would support any refugees to "return in dignity" as it works with the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

He noted, however, that "due to the security situation in many areas and significant restrictions on humanitarian access, UNHCR cannot yet ensure comprehensive monitoring of the situation inside all areas of Syria, including the situation of those who have returned already."

Syrian families walk as Russian and Syrian forces stand guard at the Abu al-Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Syria's Idlib province on October 23. Civilians are coming from rebel-held areas in Idlib province and entering government-controlled territories. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to property loss, many Syrians worry of facing political and social retribution should they return to their native country. Major General Issam Zahreddine, a prominent military leader who was killed last year when his vehicle reportedly drove over a landmine planted by ISIS in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, warned those who fled the country that "even if the state forgives you, we will never forgive or forget," though he later apologized and clarified his remarks.

Assad has sought to reassure potential returnees, however. In addition to the alleged repeal of Law 10, the Syrian leader issued earlier this a month decree No.18, a general amnesty for those who deserted mandatory military service or defected to rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army. Violators within the country would have four months to turn themselves in, while those still on the outside had six months.

In a joint meeting Monday of Moscow's Defense and Foreign Ministries, Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the National Center for State Defence Control, dismissed what he called "rumors that the decree is another trap of the 'Assad regime' and that prosecution awaits citizens who believed him upon their return to Syria." He called the theory "absurd" and criticized Germany for taking "a politicized approach in assisting Syrian refugees" by not allocating funds for the return of Syrians within territory held by the government.

"Under these conditions, our task is to convey to the entire world community the objective results of the work of the Syrian government to create the necessary conditions for the return of citizens of the republic and to confirm with numbers and real examples the desire of the Syrians to return to a peaceful life in their homeland," Mizintsev said.