Homs under siege: The tale of a rebellious city

19771314811.jpgSyrian women mourn over the body of a relative killed by a shrapnel during his funeral in Qusayr, 15km from Homs. 

Homs has increasingly become the Ultimate stronghold of anti-regime fighters
By Joseph Kechichian,
Despite the Baathist admonition against sectarianism, sharp cleavages emerged throughout the 1970s in Syria, which led to the infamous 1982 Hama massacre.

In late 1981, and as the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hafez Al Assad sharpened, the late president apparently told several of his Alawite comrades: “It is us or them.”

Although secularising political institutions presumably overlooked religious differences, Syria’s contemporary history was mired in sectarianism, the legacy of intentional pre-independence factionalism under the French and opportunistic post-independence power plays under the Baath.

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Much like his father’s uncompromising position towards Hama, the recent military assaults on Homs may well represent President Bashar Al Assad’s “us or them” moment, with the singular difference that the current uprising is about freedom—the most inspiring and powerful objective for all human beings.

Nearly a month of intense bombardment of several sections of Homs failed to dislodge members of the Free Syrian Army that confronted former comrades-in-arms in one of the most relentless attacks on the hapless city.
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One particular neighbourhood, Baba Amr, was literally besieged and could easily fall to the superior firepower of the Syrian Army.

 Hundreds were killed and thousands were wounded, including several foreign journalists trapped inside the city. Access was denied to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) so little is actually known of conditions which the ICRC and other humanitarian agencies described as “atrocious.” Britain, France and the United States renewed efforts to remobilise the UN Security Council, focusing particularly on Homs, with all three superpower countries hoping that Russia and China would no longer oppose their latest move.

Because of the massive bombardment, nearly half of the 900,000 residents fled Homs, seeking refuge in remote villages or, for those with relatives in northern Lebanon—across the international borders.

Religious diversity

Before the uprising, the population reflected Syria’s overall religious diversity, though the overwhelming majority — perhaps 60 per cent — were Sunnis. Several Christian communities, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (both Orthodox as well as Catholic), along with Alawites, made up the balance.

The Syriac Orthodox Church, which was headquartered in Mardin, Turkey, transferred the seat of its Patriarchate to Homs in 1933, before moving to Damascus in 1959. An additional 20,000 Palestinians from the Haifa region, who were expelled from Israel in 1948, settled in the Homs Refugee Camp, located within the city.

An equal number of Armenian survivors of the 1915 war settled in Homs, though a far greater number were sheltered in Aleppo, Qamishli and Deir Zor. Importantly, the city’s centuries old diversity essentially meant that its inhabitants harboured justified antagonisms against authorities, which valued what Homs could give them without any responsibilities towards it.

In many ways, the city was the “Capital of the 2011-2012 Revolution,” after tens of thousands gathered in “Liberty Square” on April 17-18 to voice their opposition to Bashar Al Assad and the Baath regime.

Strategic value

At least 62 residents were killed that day though hundreds, perhaps thousands more became martyrs as Syrians killed their fellow citizens. The SAA siege, which started on May 6 intensified a month ago, though after early June, the confrontations never stopped.

More Syrians died and are still dying in Homs than elsewhere in the country. Both Damascus and its opponents, in the FSA as well as the Syrian National Council (SNC) understood the city’s strategic value, which is the reason why fighting was so intense. Indeed, whoever controlled Homs ensured access to the sea as well as to northern Syria.

From a purely military perspective, a command over the Homs Gap — also known as the Akkar Gap because of its proximity to Lebanon’s Akkar region that is geographically and demographically tied to it — guaranteed relatively easy access to the Mediterranean.

The Asi River, which stood as the gateway to Syria, separated the Nusayriyyah Mountains and the Jabal Al Zawiyah from the Jabal Lubnan Al Sharqiyyah (anti-Lebanon in Western terminology). Naturally, this key route from the coast to the interior provide safe and year-long access, with impeccable links to the Lebanese port of Tripoli.

If geography was the city’s undeniable asset, its multiculturalism guaranteed rare open-mindedness, which drew the ire of the obtuse against gentle residents. Homsi jokes often referred to its population’s simple-mindedness though it reality most were purer souls compared to vulgar compatriots anxious to accommodate passing ideologies.

What made Homs different, therefore, were not just the population’s tolerance and puritanical preferences but also the steadfast opposition to imported values — most notably spread at the Baath university.

Homs remained true to its roots and while leading families like the Al Atassi fought within the system, others chose exile.

Among those that left was Fawaz Al Akhras, the father of first lady Asma Al Assad, whose Sunni faith was deemed a useful complement to the Alawite president’s weak credentials even if the couple knew each other for years before marrying.

Like the presidential couple’s intra-faith wedding, Syria confronted a sectarian legacy, which Baathism was supposed to eradicate. In reality, over four decades of indoctrination failed to erase such identifications, which was why the minority Alawites ruled over the majority Sunnis. Even worse, and while Baathism was not supposed to differentiate among Syrians, 70 per cent of soldiers serving in the Syrian armed forces were Alawites, even if the community made up about 12 per cent of the entire Syrian population.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is an American scholar of Armenian descent. He is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.