Homs: ‘Capital of the Syrian revolution’ – By Matthew Davis
The restive west Syrian city of Homs has become has become a focal point for protests against President Bashar al-Assad – and it is also now one of the areas hardest hit by the state’s bloody crackdown.
Homs – for many the capital of the Syrian Revolution – was one of the first cities to join the uprisings against the government, and in April 2011 saw first-hand its brutality when crowds protesting in its Clock Tower Square were fired on, reportedly leaving 17 dead and dozens wounded.
Seven months on, protests against the government continue there, despite equally unrelenting attacks by security forces which in the last week are said to have killed at least 100 people. The opposition has declared the city a disaster zone.
« This is one place where the people just don’t give up, it has become so symbolic, » says Rime Allaf, a Syria expert and associate fellow at the think tank Chatham House.
« That night back in April was a turning point in the Homs saga. People came with tents and sandwiches, prepared to face tear gas, and they were cut down with bullets. »
That incident may have provided a rallying point for those in Homs protesting for democracy in Syria, but a number of other factors sustained the protests throughout the summer and autumn.
Firstly, significant numbers of soldiers defecting from the Syrian army have made Homs a base.
Defectors drawn to what was then a liberated city effectively enabled protests to take place. Armed and able to shoot back, they provided security and a perimeter for demonstrations, and also helped to root out collaborators.
The geography of Syria’s third largest city, a sprawling centre of agriculture and industry that is home to about 1.5 million people, is also said to have been problematic for the Syrian security forces.
« It is such an extended city, with extensive suburbs, villages and surrounding areas taking part [in protests] that it has been hard for the Syrian army to subdue all of that territory, as well as everywhere else, » says Rime Allaf.
The unique character of the city’s inhabitants and the area’s strong local identity has also been cited as a explanation for Homs’s resilience.
Many Syrians have been shocked by what they describe as the savagery of the regime and protestors in Homs have been successful at displaying a sense of civilisation which belies the regime’s narrative of a thuggish underclass.”
Peter HarlingInternational Crisis Group
Peter Harling, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon Project Director at the International Crisis Group, says: « People from Homs are renowned for their sense of humour and this has come out so strongly in the crisis – even in the teeth of this massive onslaught by the regime.
« Many Syrians have been shocked by what they describe as the savagery of the regime and protesters in Homs have been successful at displaying a sense of civilisation which belies the regime’s narrative of a thuggish underclass.
« Unlike its surrounding countryside, Homs has by and large resisted sectarian dynamics, maintained a measure of social cohesion, challenged the regime through its strong local identity and provided a source of inspiration to many regime critics.
« That is why Homs has been the capital that Damascus has not. »
The protests in Syria first centred on southern Deraa, an agricultural hub once considered a government stronghold.
They later spread to Latakia in the north, birthplace of former President Hafez al-Assad, and the Mediterranean coastal town of Baniyas, which has a strong conservative Sunni Muslim constituency.
It was then that the protests moved west to Homs, and to west-central Hama, the site of a brutally suppressed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.
When a BBC undercover team recently visited Homs, they saw daily demonstrations – or rather nightly protests, as the protesters were taking to the streets after dark to minimise casualties, except on Fridays after midday prayers.
A Syrian army soldier who told the BBC that he had been ordered to attack the city alleged that he and comrades were told to « kill everything that moved, everyone who was walking in the street ».
Even in the weeks since that visit, the violence in Homs appears to have increased, on both sides.
The authorities say the security forces – with tanks and artillery – are fighting militant gangs who have been killing civilians in Homs. Opponents dispute this and because of reporting restrictions imposed by Syria it is hard to verify exactly what is going on at street level.
But activists and residents quoted in the New York Times say a portion of those army defectors in Homs have begun carrying out regular attacks on the security services.
Peter Harling says the situation in parts of Homs now resembles « an urban battlefield » – and in the countryside surrounding Homs, there has been a worrying uptick in sectarian violence that could lay the groundwork for « civil war ».
Where the « deployment of security services, often behaving in a deeply sectarian fashion themselves, has had the effect of cutting the social ties between the towns and villages in the area around Homs », there is greater potential for sectarian conflict, he says.
« This is not what the regime appears most concerned about, » he says. But Homs is.