Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2011
Issue No. 1076
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Capital of the revolution

The Syrian army occupied the city of Homs several months ago, but residents continue their demonstrations calling for the end of the regime, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Children riding on the shoulders of adults protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad through the streets after Friday prayers near Idlb

Five months have passed since the Syrian security forces moved into the city of Homs in central Syria, and today armoured vehicles and tanks still roar through the city. However, while Homs resembles a military barracks, with anti-regime neighbourhoods having become war zones, the struggle of the population against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues, giving the city the title of "capital of the revolution."

There have been more deaths in Homs since the regime's crackdown against demonstrations calling for the peaceful transition of power began, with the uprising starting in the city just weeks after it began in the southern city of Deraa, the cradle of the revolution. More than 50,000 people have participated in street demonstrations against the regime, and Homs was the first Syrian city in which pictures of Al-Assad were routinely torn down, triggering fierce repression from the regime.

Since June this year, hardly a day has passed without residents of the city being confronted by security forces using live ammunition against the demonstrators. Civilian deaths have been notably high, and the Syrian security forces used heavy artillery for the first time in Homs. While the authorities have claimed that they are acting against "armed gangs" determined to destroy the country, members of the country's opposition counter that the regime is using excessive force to silence legitimate protests.

According to the opposition, Homs has become a blighted city, with the authorities blocking deliveries of medicine, food and fuel. Children in the city are particularly suffering, and members of the security forces and regime death squads are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians in Homs alone, injuring or arresting thousands of others.

One neighbourhood of the city after another ê" including Baba Amr, Bab Al-Sebaa, Bab Al-Dreeb, Deir Baalba and Al-Khalediya -- have been targeted by the authorities, who have also ordered the shelling of surrounding towns such as Kalerstan, Talbisa and Talclakh, all mostly inhabited by Syrian Sunnis.

In response to the crackdown, the Arab League has urged the UN to put pressure on Damascus to allow international relief agencies, human rights missions and the media to enter the city. The Syrian Free Army (SFA), a military group composed of soldiers defecting from the regular Syrian army and joining the opposition forces, has said that it intends to step up efforts to defend the people of Homs from attacks by the security forces.

Several skirmishes have taken place in the city between the SFA and the security forces, with the SFA claiming that it has killed hundreds of security personnel and members of regime death squads while defending city residents.

Meanwhile, opposition activists have also accused the regime of trying to instigate sectarian strife between the country's Sunni and Alawite communities in Homs, calling on residents not to allow themselves to be "ensnared in regime traps." For its part, the Syrian government has said that "acts of revenge" are being carried out in Homs by extremists targeting groups loyal to the regime.

Around one million people live in Homs, with another 1.5 million living in the surrounding areas. Some 75 per cent of urban and rural residents are Sunnis, with Christians making up a further five per cent. Alawites, a community related to Shia Islam and often seen as regime loyalists, account for around 20 per cent of the population, having migrated to the city over recent decades.

Strong tribal bonds exist between Sunnis in rural areas of the city, especially in the districts of Baba Amr, Al-Khalediya, Bab Al-Sebaa, Al-Bayada, Deir Baalba, Bab Hud and Bab Al-Dreeb. Rural areas around the city, including Al-Rastan, Talbisa, Talclakh and Al-Hawla, are often seen as havens for revolutionaries fleeing regime forces.

A week ago, a large-scale military deployment intensified the siege around the city, with activists saying that this could be a sign that a further onslaught is imminent. Opposition groups fear that the Syrian regime may be planning to carry out further massacres in Homs in order to try to stamp out the uprising in the city.

At the end of last week, a pipeline that passes through the district of Baba Amr transporting oil to Syria's Mediterranean ports was bombed, with regime spokesmen accusing "armed militias" of carrying out the attack. However, local people say that the security forces carried out the attack themselves in order to provide a pretext for further military action in Homs, and video footage has been uploaded to the Internet apparently showing Syrian tanks shelling the pipeline.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), which represents the country's opposition abroad, has strongly criticised the Syrian regime for what has been taking place in Homs, as has the Arab League and the international community. The SNC has called on the international community to take action to protect civilians in the city, fearing that what took place in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, when tens of thousands of people were killed during battles between Islamist groups and the Syrian military, may be about to be repeated in Homs.

The Syrian government has denied that it is preparing for a new onslaught on Homs, and it has accused the opposition of taking up arms in an attempt to destablise the country. Syrian forces are present in Homs to protect civilians and maintain order, which is being undermined by those carrying arms against the state, the government says, repeating the line it has taken since protests broke out in the city five months ago.

Meanwhile, France, the US and Britain have also warned that the Syrian military may be preparing for a new onslaught on Homs. Spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry Bernard Valero said that the Syrian government would be held accountable for any action targeting the city's residents, and the US expressed its "serious concerns" about conditions in Homs.

"If Homs is attacked, the Syrian authorities cannot be absolved of responsibility," said Victoria Noland, a spokeswoman for the US State Department. "President Assad will be responsible for any killing that takes place." In London, British minister of state for Middle East affairs Alistair Burt said that "the Syrian government must immediately withdraw its troops from Homs and exercise restraint."

Turkey has also warned Syria that it will take action if the crackdown by Damascus against protesters becomes a threat to regional security, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has again suggested sending international monitors to Syria.

Thus far, the peaceful protests calling for reform in Syria have been met with excessive force by the regime, with recent estimates suggesting that more than 4,700 people have been killed by regime forces since the protests began. According to local coordination committees active in the field and the Centre for Documenting Violations in Syria, a NGO, 1,770 deaths have occurred in Homs alone.

In a recent interview, Al-Assad denied responsibility for the deaths of the protesters in Syria, telling the US ABC television network that "I am the president, not the king, of the country. These are not my troops."

However, according to Anwar Al-Bonni, director of the Syrian Centre for Legal Studies and Research, "the Syrian constitution makes the president a virtual king over the country. It gives him an absolute mandate and prohibits his being prosecuted or investigated for actions while in office."

"According to the current constitution, the president directs the policies of the state, heads the executive branch, is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, hires and fires civil servants, dissolves parliament, is in charge of the legislature, holds the prime minister accountable, and chairs the Supreme Judicial Council and the ruling Baath Party. Al-Assad's statements about not being responsible contradict the constitution," Al-Bonni told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Observers believe that the special character of Homs would render further military action there a complicated endeavour. It is the third-largest city in Syria in terms of population and the country's largest governorate. The area shares a border with Iraq and Lebanon, making any attempt to impose military control over it a difficult and expensive venture.

Sunni areas to the south and east of the city are key recruiting districts for the Syrian army, and the region's proximity to the Lebanese border has made it fertile ground for smuggling, with illegal weapons allegedly being found there in large quantities. Since the region is shared by Sunnis and Alawites, there is also the possibility of sectarian conflict.

Meanwhile, the tragedy of Homs continues, threatening international action against the Syrian regime and perhaps bringing the Syrian revolution to a critical juncture. If the country's security forces do step up actions against the population despite the international warnings, then this could further internationalise the Syrian crisis, either preventing or encouraging further civil conflict.

Whatever the case may be, should the siege and killings continue, more and more Sunni soldiers and officers may be encouraged to defect from the Syrian armed forces, further fuelling the conflict in the region.

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