Key Syrian City Takes On the Tone of a Civil War
By ANTHONY SHADID
Published: October 1, 2011
This article was reported by a correspondent for The New York Times in Homs, Syria, and written by Anthony Shadid in Beirut, Lebanon.
HOMS, Syria — The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.
Since the start of the uprising in March, Homs has stood as one of Syria’s most contested cities, its youth among the best organized and most tenacious. But across the political spectrum, residents speak of a decisive shift in past weeks, as a largely peaceful uprising gives way to a grinding struggle that has made Homs violent, fearful and determined.
Analysts caution that the strife in Homs is still specific to the city itself, and many in the opposition reject violence because they fear it will serve as a pretext for the government’s brutal crackdown.
But in the targeted killings, the rival security checkpoints and the hardening of sectarian sentiments, the city offers a dark vision that could foretell the future of Syria’s uprising as both the government and the opposition ready themselves for a protracted struggle over the endurance of a four-decade dictatorship.
“We are done with the protesting phase,” said a 21-year-old engineering student here who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “We’ve now entered a more important phase.”
Homs is a microcosm of Syria, with a Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which President Bashar al-Assad draws much of his leadership.
Six months of protests and crackdown here have frayed ties among those communities, forging the conditions for urban strife.
An armed opposition is battling security forces in the most restive neighborhoods. Insurgents have tried to protect the same peaceful protesters the government has relentlessly sought to arrest. Tension has grown so dire that members of one sect are reluctant to travel to neighborhoods populated by other sects. Men in some parts of the city openly carry weapons.
Perhaps the most dramatic facet of the struggle is a series of assassinations this past week that have left nearly a dozen professors, doctors and informers dead in a paroxysm of violence that echoes the sectarian vendettas still besetting Iraq. Unlike the uprising’s early days, when the government exercised a near monopoly on violence, fear is beginning to spread in the other direction, as insurgents kill government supporters and informers, residents say.
One of those killed was Dr. Hassan Eid, the chief of thoracic surgery at the National Hospital here and an Alawite from Al Zuhra, one of a handful of neighborhoods where his sect makes up a majority and where buildings and streets are still plastered with the portraits of Mr. Assad. He was shot to death in front of his house as he headed off to work, residents said.
Al Ouruba, a government-aligned newspaper, called him a “symbol of dedication” and said he treated victims of the violence “without discriminating between any of them.” But in Sunni Muslim locales, residents called him a government informer who helped security forces detain the wounded who were treated at his facility.
By nightfall, a hint of triumphalism echoed in parts of the city, as some people celebrated his death.
“He was responsible for the death of many young men,” said a 65-year-old resident of Homs, who gave his name as Rajab. “He was killed because he deserved it.”
Soon after dawn the next day, gunfire erupted as children went to school.
“They shot Abu Ali,” an old man who collects garbage and cleans the streets in the neighborhood said a short time later.
Abu Ali, the name most knew him by, was another informant, the residents said.
“The guys were aware of him a long time ago,” said an activist in his late 40s who gave his name as Abu Ghali. “But now it’s different. He kept reporting, so they had to kill him. I don’t think he died right away though.”
Abu Ghali added that it was not difficult to get information on informers. “You can do anything with money,” he said. “You just bribe an officer, and be generous with him, and you can get all you want.”
The killings took place during two bloody days in Homs, a city along the Orontes River and not too far from the historic medieval castle Krak des Chevaliers. Residents said that after Abu Ali died, three Alawite teachers were killed at a school in the neighborhood of Baba Amr. (Government newspapers did not confirm those deaths.) In the afternoon, Mohammed Ali Akil, an assistant dean at Al Baath University in Homs, was found dead in his car on a highway. Students said he had shown support for the uprising and criticized Mr. Assad’s leadership in his lectures.
“It is true that we were scared during your lectures, but you were a wonderful professor,” a student posted on Facebook. “May you rest in peace. We won’t forget you.”
Near the Lebanese border — where residents say weapons flow across a porous border from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and even Qatar — Homs strikes an odd posture. Many of its Sunni residents are at once fearful and proud, empowered by their opposition to dictatorship. Many Alawites are terrified; they are often the victims of the most vulgar stereotypes and, in popular conversation, uniformly associated with the leadership.
In Alawite villages, only government television is watched. To do so in Sunni neighborhoods amounts to treason. There, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are the stations of choice. Suspicions give currency to the wildest of rumors; in one, a female butcher in Homs named Um Khaled asks the armed gangs to bring her the bodies of Alawites they capture so that she can cut them up and market the meat to her customers.
Centuries-old connections between sects still knit together the city, even as the suggestion of civil war threatens to sever them forever. The countryside, residents say, is roiled by far more sectarian hatred. Government checkpoints separate Sunni from Alawite.
“One side kills an Alawite, the other kills a Sunni,” a 46-year-old activist said.
The uprising’s overall toll has been grim: By the United Nations’ count, more than 2,700 people have died. The revolt still draws much of its strength from the countryside, and the two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, remain relatively quiescent. Though protests have flagged lately, Homs has stayed defiant.
Armed men often protect the perimeter of protests in places like Bab al-Sbaa, Khaldiya and Baba Amr, where some stores are shut and buildings are scarred by broken windows and bullet holes. Some of them have carried out the assassinations of informers, or “awayniyeh,” as they call them. Others scout government checkpoints and occasionally set up their own, temporary versions.
“They have rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs,” said a driver in his late 50s who lives in the neighborhood of Khaldiya. “They should be armed,” he added. “They protect us.”
A woman who gave her name as Suleima lives on Al Joura Street in Baba Amr. She earns a living by preparing kibbe, a dish of minced meat with cracked wheat, for wealthier clients in other neighborhoods of Homs. For three days, gunfire kept her inside her house and telephones were down.
“You never know when they will start shooting again,” she said.
Angry and exhausted, she professed neutrality in a conflict that makes such a notion ever more difficult.
“Neighbors accuse me of being with the regime, so I laugh,” she said at her house, which she shares with her daughter. “What on earth did this regime give me? Absolutely nothing. But neither did the revolutionaries. I work, I eat. If I don’t work, I starve. At least I worked before. Now I’m at home, hardly leaving it, and hardly making a living.”