The Syrian government has arrested a woman and her four daughters, reportedly for phoning displaced family members living in the northern opposition stronghold of Idlib.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, locals informed journalists that military intelligence arrested the family in their hometown of Al-Rahiba, in the province of Qalamoun, north east of Damascus last week.
According to some intelligence informants, the reason for the arrests was their attempt to make contact with displaced relatives who left Qalamoun for Idlib due to the on-going violence.
The anonymous officials further alleged that Russian forces, which have been deployed in the town, have installed wiretapping devices so as to monitor residents’ communication with opposition activists. However this is the first time arrests have been made on such charges.
The Qalamoun region was recaptured by Syrian regime forces, alongside Hezbollah militias in 2017, with opposition forces retreating to the north and Daesh fighters ousted to the east of the Euphrates.
Areas retaken by Damascus have witnessed a campaign of arbitrary arrests in recent months, in a bid to deter support for opposition groups in the north and consolidate control over areas that once called for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Raids and detentions have become increasingly common in Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Daraa, with members of civil rescue unit the White Helmets also arrested, despite such actions violating terms of reconciliation agreements.
The fear or retaliation from the government is one of the most significant factors deterring refugee return, despite the government deeming Syria now safe and calling for displaced people to return from neighbouring countries.
Last year a Lebanese government minister claimed that 20 refugees that returned from Lebanon were killed by the regime, motivated by sectarianism and allegations that they supported northern factions. Other reports suggested that Syrian authorities rejected the return of Sunni families to Qalamoun and Al-Qusayr and its countryside.
In February, Lebanese NGO Sawa for Development and Aid found that Syrian refugees who made the journey back home were fleeing back to Lebanon after finding their homes destroyed or occupied by others, with little help offered by the government.
The war in Syria, now approaching its ninth year, has killed more than 560,000 people, the vast majority by regime-allied forces.