Basil was 15 years old when he fled the Syrian war to build a life for himself in Lebanon.
He now fears that fighting between Hamas and Israel could trigger a wider conflict that destabilises the region. That could force Syrian refugees like him to make an impossible choice: Live through a second war or return home to their repressive country.
“Returning to Syria is the last option for me,” Basil told Al Jazeera, in a barbershop in Lebanon’s capital Beirut.
“There is no safety nor stability [in Syria] until today,” he added.
Lebanon is home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, according to government figures. Of that number, which has not been updated in years, 800,000 are registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Many Syrians are observing the violence on the Lebanese-Israeli border between Hezbollah and Israel. The former is allied with Hamas and is part of the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ which includes Syria and Iran.
Already, villages in southern Lebanon have started emptying out, as people flee northwards, fearing Israeli bombardment. On Thursday, Israel widened the regional ambit of the conflict by bombing Syria’s main airports to reportedly disrupt Iranian supply lines.
As the spectre of a regional war looms, many Syrians in Lebanon say that any major conflict could force them to return home, where the regime conscripts young men into the army and frequently jails, tortures and kills perceived opponents.
“The situation will be really difficult [for Syrians] if we can’t stay in Lebanon. Some will try to travel to another country somehow, so they won’t be affected,” Basil said. “But if we have to choose between Lebanon and Syria, then I don’t know what we’ll do or where we will go.”
The fear of military service
Ahmed, 19, said that he fled Syria two years ago to evade compulsory military service. Most Syrian men in Lebanon, he said, fear being conscripted into the army, which remains at war with rebel groups in northern Syria.
“How will we travel [to a safer country] if there are problems in Lebanon? Most Syrians don’t have a passport or any form of identification,” Ahmed said.
Lebanon is landlocked between Syria and Israel. Beyond those neighbours, the nearest country is Cyprus, which impoverished Syrian and Lebanese nationals have tried to reach by crossing the sea.
But Syrians are frequently dragged back to shore by the Lebanese army and then returned to Syria, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Last New Year’s Eve, the Lebanese army deported 200 Syrians for attempting to flee via the Mediterranean Sea. They were taken to a far northern Lebanese village and told to cross the border.
“The [economic] situation in Lebanon is almost as bad as it is in Syria and even some Lebanese people are fleeing [Lebanon]. The difference between Lebanon and Syria is that Syrians have to serve in the military. But I won’t go back to Syria [if there is a war in Lebanon],” Ahmed said, shaking his head.
Another Syrian refugee, Mohamad, added that mounting racism in Lebanon made him and several others fearful of migrating to new host communities within the country if a war breaks out. Any major Israeli attack would likely target – and devastate – Hezbollah-controlled areas such as south Lebanon and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
That would push Lebanese and Syrian nationals to flee north, yet Mohamad said that northern villages are less welcoming to Syrians. He told Al Jazeera that gangs often accost Syrians to enforce unlawful curfews, ask for legal documents or attack them.
Many Syrians, he said, might conclude it is safer to return to Syria.
“Irrespective of the war, the majority of Syrians are already thinking of returning to Syria because of the racism here,” Mohamad said.
Fear of reprisal
Yet many Syrians fear that they could face reprisal from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad if they return home.
In 2021, HRW spoke to 65 family members of people who returned to Syria. They were told that 21 of them were arrested, 13 tortured, three kidnapped, five murdered and 17 were subjected to enforced disappearances.
Syrians from towns and cities that traditionally oppose the regime are in most danger, according to Basil who is originally from the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Idlib has become an enclave where millions of people live without adequate shelter, food or water. More than half of its four million residents are internally displaced, most of whom left or escaped their towns and villages after the regime recaptured them.
Since 2017, residents in Idlib have lived under the control of an opposition group once linked to al-Qaeda, as well as under frequent bombing and shelling from the Syrian army. Just this week alone, a regime offensive has reportedly killed scores of people, according to activists.
Basil says that if he goes back to Syria, then he will be perceived as an opponent of the regime once they discover that he is from Idlib. He believes he would then be jailed and killed. “That’s the greatest risk. Going back to Syria is like committing suicide,” Basil said. “Going back there is the absolute worst-case scenario.”