CAIRO - Syrian government media reports say hundreds of refugees are returning to the country after years of exile in Lebanon. Media also showed pro-government forces raising the Syrian flag over a number of villages in the southwestern region of Daraa, amid claims that some residents were returning to that area after signing reconciliation agreements with the government.
Syrian state TV showed the first group of what it said was around 900 villagers from the mountainous Qalamoun district, bordering Lebanon, returning from refugee camps in the Lebanese mountain village of Arsal, across the border. Many residents appeared hesitant, but said on television that they were pleased to be going back to Syria.
In the south of the country, Syrian TV showed government forces recapturing the town of Ghadir al Bustan, near Daraa, as tanks entered the area amid a hail of gunfire. Ghadir is just one of a string of villages that the government has either recaptured or peacefully entered after signing an agreement with rebels who control those places.
In the same area, residents chanted slogans apparently in favor of the government, as the Syrian flag was raised over the border town of Nassib, the site of a border crossing into Jordan. Local dignitaries gave speeches applauding the government's return and residents of the town said they were pleased to be under government control again.
Separately, Syrian TV showed footage of at least three airstrikes over the border region with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The television reports indicated that militants from the Islamic State group controlled the area and were resisting government attempts to recapture it.
Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that half of the White Helmets civil defense organization, which operates in rebel-controlled areas, had yet to be evacuated from the border region. Israel evacuated 422 members of the group recently and took them to Jordan, which is holding them until they can be resettled in the West.
A Syrian Army officer overseeing the government's official reconciliation program with former rebel areas said that 150 young men had agreed to remain in the area and join the Syrian Army as part of the deal. According to official media reports, several of the men also said they were pleased to be back under government control, but many others agreed to evacuate to the northern rebel-controlled city of Idlib, now being protected by neighboring Turkey. The statements were not independently verified.
Arabiya TV said a number of former rebels who had agreed to participate in the government's reconciliation program were arrested or detained. It gave no details, however, and VOA could not independently confirm the report.
Syria expert Joshua Landis, who heads the Middle East program at the University of Oklahoma, told VOA that it is very difficult for many former rebels and their families to accept life under government control again.
"It's a miserable decision for each of these families to make: families who have people who have fought on the rebel side because many of the most established rebels have decided not to return under Bashar [al-Assad's] control and they have gotten on buses to leave for the north of the country, where rebels still hold sway. But the vast majority of people don't want to leave their homes and don't want to become refugees. The situation is very bad and they are throwing themselves at the mercy of the Syrian government," he said.
Landis said most of the young men "do not want to serve in the Syrian Army" and "do not trust the Syrian authorities not to harass them or put them in jail." He added, "Now is a very difficult time because it is the first groups that are just beginning to return, so the uncertainties are many and the Syrian authorities still feel insecure."