The battle for Homs is not over yetJanuary 5, 2015
Alaa Halabi As-Safir
Nearly four years after the start of the war in Syria, visitors to Homs — a city considered by the opposition as the capital of the revolution — can easily feel the magnitude of the tragedy caused by the battles. Tragedy has turned the capital of humor into a wounded city. The stench of death still wafts from the streets of Homs. Half of the city is uninhabited and the other half is inhabited by a wounded population. Nevertheless, the city is trying to rise up from the ashes and return to life.
Homs receives visitors coming from Damascus through a large military checkpoint, where thorough searches are carried out for wanted people or explosive materials. As you pass Baath University, one can still feel it bustle with life, as more than 120,000 students are enrolled.
The citizens of the city recall the days when the Bab Amr neighborhood posed a real threat to Baath University, which was hit by shells that killed 22 students and injured about 34, according to university officials. However, the university regained its role as an important learning center. University campuses accommodate more than 13,000 students from other provinces, and thousands of students are distributed in the city neighborhoods that are relatively safe now.
Neighborhoods that were pro-government at the beginning of the events (Akrama, al-Nezha, Wadi al-Zahab, Karm al-Lawz, al-Zahra and al-Arman) are crowded and remain relatively safe. On the other hand, the neighborhoods controlled by opposition militants (Bab Amr, al-Nazihin, Ashira, Karm al-Zaitoun, the old quarter of Homs, Deir Balbeh and al-Bayada) are almost uninhabited after most residents were forced to leave during the armed clashes between the Syrian army and the combat factions. Some families returned after the army took control, while many are still distributed between the pro-government neighborhoods, the refugee camps in Lebanon, and the flared-up countryside of Homs.
Most of the people you meet in Homs relay the stories of a massacre they witnessed or a bombing that took the lives of their loved ones, or a story of a martyr who was fighting to defend the city.
Numerous stories describing the start of the events in the city all lead to the same conclusion: “Some parties were working to stir sedition, kidnapping operations were carried out between sects and neighborhoods, pedestrians were fired at and sporadic demonstrations were staged.” The citizens of the city today blame external parties and local conspirators.
In the beginning, kidnappings and killings were the most common security breaches in Homs. Hossam Mia, a former teacher at the Qazhal School in Homs, and a survivor of a November 2011 civilian massacre, said, “At the end of my work day I was heading back home in a taxi cab. Given the traffic, the cab was packed with 15 passengers. It was a day I will never forget.”
Mia stops for a while and tells As-Safir, “After reaching the traffic light at Khalid Mosque, and instead of going straight ahead, the taxi driver veered to the right under the pretext of shootings in al-Khalidiyah neighborhood. He headed toward Wadi al-Sayeh, where militants had installed a checkpoint near al-Umawiah School, and we found out that he was dealing with these militants.”
He added, “They asked for our personal cards and some gave their cards. Two young men from al-Khalidiyah and four girls were released and the nine of us who refused to show their cards were held, including a woman and her husband.”
Mia continued, “The woman was killed immediately. Her husband sat crying over her head before they killed him, too. Then they made us stand near the school wall and opened fire at us.”
Hossam was hit by gunfire in his leg and the militants thought him dead. The militants then evacuated the scene, leaving behind dead bodies. Some citizens tried to save those who remained alive.
“A 40-year-old woman from the neighborhood saved my life. She stopped her car and took me to the hospital, while the rest were all dead,” said Mia.
Homs residents tell many similar stories of events that took place at the beginning of the conflict, most notably the attack on the Officers Club that led to the killing of Adel Fendi and the injury of others. The incident was a turning point in the city, followed by successive assassinations, kidnappings and mutilation of dead bodies. Sectarian congestion followed, making the city a breeding ground for a long war.
The pace of the insurgency and clashes quickened, and Homs was fragmented. Militants controlled several neighborhoods, and then besieged neighborhoods loyal to the regime, notably al-Zahra neighborhood, whose inhabitants were forced to move to the countryside of Homs (via the villages of Zaidal and Fayrouza) to reach other neighborhoods or cities.
An official of the National Defense Forces in Homs told As-Safir, “The repeated kidnappings and attacks prompted the inhabitants of the neighborhoods supporting the regime to form popular committees to defend themselves.” He added, “With time, the work of these committees was organized within an institution of a clear structure to ensure security. National defense was a necessity in light of the circumstances witnessed by Homs. This required the formation of a substitute institution for the army, which contributed in restoring safety to the city.”
The first military operations in Homs took place in “the revolution stronghold,” namely the famous Bab Amr neighborhood, which was besieged for a long period before the Syrian army and its supporting factions decided to start a military campaign to regain control of the neighborhoods of the city, located in the middle of Syria.
The Syrian army seized control of the neighborhood, which, according to opposition militants, was impossible to be completely seized. The military operations expanded, and the army subsequently managed to control all neighborhoods of the city with the exception of the old city, which insurgents left following a long siege and a UN-brokered deal. Al-Waer neighborhood is still controlled by armed factions and is under siege by the Syrian army and the National Defense Forces.
The Syrian army regaining control over Homs’ neighborhoods shocked opposition circles, as they considered Homs “the capital of the revolution.” Homs’ location in Syria is also strategically important, as it is connected to Hama, Idlib, Turkey to the north, Lebanon to the south, Damascus to the southeast and the Iraqi border to the east. Control of Homs means control of most of Syria’s supply routes.
“The gunmen wanted to turn Homs into Syria’s Benghazi, but the military action completely foiled their plot, and Homs turned into a springboard for the Syrian army’s operations rather than a stronghold for the armed factions,” a military source said.
The Syrian army’s operations, which began in early 2012, were not limited to the city border, and they spread to Qusair (one of the most important arms smuggling passages across Lebanon). The army took over Qusair in June 2013 before it seized the Zara area and Krak des Chevaliers in March, in cooperation with Hezbollah.
Though the Syrian army controls the Lebanese border and the entire city of Homs and its environs — except for al-Waer district, home to about 300,000 people, according to opposition estimates — the northern countryside remains troublesome. This region is open to Turkey and currently serves as the springboard to launch missiles at the city, from Rastan and Talbiseh up to Dar al-Kabira.
“Homs cannot be fully secured until these areas are controlled,” said the military source, who added, as he glimpsed at a map in front of him, that “these areas are open to the countryside of Idlib and Turkey, and controlling them is very difficult. Therefore, supply routes must be initially blocked, and this does not seem easy at the moment.”
Despite the daily shells that befall Homs, the residents of the “wounded city” — as the residents call their city — have adapted to these conditions.
Muhammad Ali Daher, a local journalist, said, “Every home has a martyred, wounded or missing member. … War has somehow wiped out civilian life, but people have become accustomed to this life.”
No official or accurate statistics exist for Homs’ dead or wounded. The issue of missing people — those kidnapped by the armed factions — continues to haunt citizens. According to the latest official statistics, about 2,600 people are missing.
In the city’s Armenian neighborhood, activists have hung on the walls of the water plant hundreds of photos of the city’s martyrs, including women and children. “This place has somehow turned into a pilgrimage place for the people of the city,” a man in his 50s said as he gazed at the pictures. He pointed to a picture and said, “This is my son.” After a long silence, he said, “He is a martyr.”
In addition to the kidnappings and killings, car bombs have penetrated Homs’ safe neighborhoods. Twenty-three suicide bombings have occurred in neighborhoods, including three double bombings. However, the heaviest explosion took place at the Akrama School, killing more than 40 children.
City markets along the Zahra neighborhood’s Hadara Street are still crowded, while cafes are mostly filled with soldiers.
“Military action stole the townspeople,” said Imad, an English student at Baath University. “They wanted to push us to leave our city, but the magic turned against the magician. The city is safe now, and militants are besieged in al-Waer neighborhood,” Imad, 23, said as he puffed a hookah. “At first, they were actors, but all the acts and bombings they are carrying out in the city now are a reaction to the Syrian army’s movements. This is reassuring.”
Although the city of Homs has been experiencing calm, except for the nightly sounds of fighting in al-Waer neighborhood, Homs’ countryside has been witnessing daily skirmishes — chosen by fate, dictated by geography — that have been turning residents’ agricultural lands and modest homes into battlefields.
“The war in Homs has not yet ended. Despite the army’s control over the entire neighborhoods in the city (except al-Waer), the vast lands in the countryside are still out of its control,” said a military source, explaining Homs’ demarcation lines between Syrian forces and the armed factions. “Homs’ northern countryside and the northeastern countryside, up to Hama’s countryside, are more or less still out of the army’s control, except for a zone surrounding the city and other regions near Homs.”
The source told As-Safir that fighting in the countryside is extremely difficult due to “roads providing constant supplies to militants through Turkey.”
“Before the army took control over Qusair and the Lebanese borders, the situation was a lot harder. However, today, it seems relatively calm. The scope of control is quite clear. We reinforced our position to prevent them from making a move as we wait for a large-scale military operation that would reach the borders with Turkey,” he added.
The militants control Dar al-Kabirah, the closest town to Homs, to which a number of rebels from Homs decided to head. They also control the towns of Teir Maala, al-Ghantu and Talbiseh in northern Homs. Their power also reaches Rastan and Hama’s countryside, where the fighting is the heaviest, as these regions are controlled by the Islamic State.
The source said, “The residents of the countryside are fighting the militants and defending their land.” He said that the militants forced many residents from several villages to migrate, notably from Kiseen, al-Amiriyah, the Christian-dominated al-Doueir, al-Husn, al-Zarah, al-Ghantu, Um Sharhouh and Um Jameh. This prompted the villagers there to form popular committees to defend their land. They then joined the National Defense Forces, which were officially formed in the beginning of 2013, as support forces for the Syrian army.
Residents are fighting in the villages of Kfarennan, Jboureen (northern Homs) and al-Mishirfeh (northeastern Homs), which is considered Homs’ first defensive front against the militants coming from Hama’s countryside.
The road to Mishirfeh, 18 kilometers from Homs, starts at al-Sitteen Street. The car passes by Ashireh neighborhood and a military escort explains that “dozens of kidnappings occurred there.” The driver has to slow down and make room for the artillery crossing al-Maabad road toward Homs. “It looks like it is coming from one of the fighting fronts,” says the driver, before speeding off again and reaching the well-known al-Jabiriyah checkpoint, located at a crossroad where several Red Cross cars were parked.
“These cars are getting ready to enter the regions controlled by the armed factions in the northern countryside,” says the military escort.
As soon as we reach the village of Mishirfeh, we see from afar a hill with ancient walls. “This is al-Mishirfeh castle. Here was the lair of the kingdom of the famous Katana, which dates back to the third millennium BC,” explains the escort.
The car stops at the gate of military headquarters, where an escort from the village joins us. We then walk around the village that is home to more than 40,000 people.
“You can find all sorts of religions and sects in this small Syrian village, where Muslims and Christians have been coexisting for a long time. It has two churches and a number of mosques,” says the new escort Hussein Kharab, known as Abu Hala.
He talks about his village as we pass by houses whose walls are covered with pictures of young men who had died during battle. “The residents of this village are defending it. We are all standing side by side to confront the takfiris,” says Abu Hala. We stop at a military checkpoint at a front line, where the village’s defenders are stationed in a two-story house, whose owner has passed by to say hello.
Abu Hala, an engineer who left his job to join the forces and defend his village, points to the roof of the house where an arc extends from northeast of the village to the southwest, saying, “All those areas are controlled by militants.” He says, “Different factions from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army are fighting on these open fronts. The village is also continuously exposed to bombardment by the militants. Most recently, a shell hit the village’s school, killing a pupil.”
From the northeast to the southwest of the area surrounding the village, more than 20 advanced defensive points are distributed, and some of the sites are kept empty during the day. “There is no need for our presence during the day, as we can easily monitor their movements from here. However, when it gets dark outside, it becomes difficult due to the fog and the trees, so we have to be present on site,” explains Abu Hala.
Before violence erupted four years ago, the village was subject to many attacks. There were two “massacres” during which two entire families were killed, which pushed the village’s residents to organize armed work in its defense. So far, they have been able to repel dozens of violent attacks and prevent several car bombs from detonating. They have also carried out operations in the surrounding area, most notably over the village’s water well, which was seized by gunmen, but the villagers later discovered that the water had been poisoned.
The villagers say that the war is a “battle of existence,” where all residents fight to defend their houses and land. “The land I own is located near that hill over there, but I cannot go there right now, and that one right there is my brother’s land. Even though I cannot reach it, I will not let the militants take control over it, not even for a minute,” said one of the fighters.
Most of the villagers work in agriculture, and there are a number of apricot and olive fields, as well as vineyards. However, a large number of young men work in the city of Homs, as government officials or employees in the private sector, and they will end up like most of the poor rural population of Homs. The war has prevented many residents from working their land, but they did not abandon their village.
“Despite the fact that most of the neighboring villages [Ain Hussein, Deir Fool, Zafarana and as-Saan] are controlled by the militants, they were unable to get one step closer to our village,” says Abu Hala, proudly.
The reason for their success in blocking the attacks, a field commander said, “is simply because we are defending our land,” adding that “many of the residents of the neighboring areas controlled by the militants are helping us. We monitor all movements on a daily basis, and we are targeting and preventing any move toward the village.”
Although Mishirfeh is located directly on the front line, it has welcomed displaced people from neighboring villages, and even from some of Homs’ neighborhoods. “We have several families in the village from other provinces, such as Aleppo and Idlib,” says Abu Hala.
The residents are well aware of the strategic and geographical importance of the village, which is Homs’ northeastern gate. Control of the village means securing the entrance to Homs and the supply routes toward al-Silmiyyah in Hama’s countryside and Aleppo. The villagers know that the war may be long, but they are accustomed to living under such circumstances. “The village lost more than 250 young people as they were defending their village and their families,” says Abu Hala. “Yet we still believe that we are winning, inevitably. We are the right holders and the true owners of the land.”
Homs beginning to rise from the ashes
In the middle of Homs, there is a large block of ruined houses facing a small hill with a fortress. The devastation reflects the fierceness of the battles that rocked the city and left buildings completely destroyed and walls bullet riddled.
Before parking his car on the roadside, the taxi driver said, “Upon seeing the destruction, you would think that the old city was completely destroyed. This is not true, though. It was a demarcation line between the Syrian army, the National Defense Forces and the security forces, on the one hand, and the militants who hid in neighborhoods, on the other hand. This is why you see massive destruction here [Bab Houd, Bab Tadmor, the main al-Hameediye Street, al-Qousour, al-Qarabees and Jouret al-Shiyah].”
“Let us continue the journey on foot. The roads are bumpy and have not been fixed yet,” he said.
The immense devastation is apparent from the road stretching from Bab Houd to Bab al-Turkman. The roads are perforated and the shops have no doors. From there, you can make your way through narrow streets, while a security car carrying a bomb detector crosses the neighboring street. The cab driver said, “The security men are still roaming the city in search of explosives or stored weapons,” adding, “One is afraid of stepping on a mine planted between the shops in al-Neswan market.”
People walking through the old streets of Homs are well aware of the loss and defeat that the militants faced when they handed over the city. The fortresses and barricades give the impression that taking over the region at the military level meant mass destruction, some neighborhoods with surviving historic buildings while others have been scarred by violence, in addition to grave human losses. It is noteworthy that the neighborhoods are close, and numerous small alleys branch off from them, in addition to dozens of tunnels that militants drilled for reinforcement. Maintenance workshops are also spread across Homs’ center, until recently the city’s governmental and commercial hub.
The city is home to a large governmental complex that contains artistic and service directorates (the syndicate of engineers, the Ministry of Finance, and the gas company). However, the work of these services was suspended after militants tightened their noose on the city and before the Syrian army positioned itself there after the two-year blockade was lifted. The militants were locked inside the city and isolated from the outside world. When their supplies and ammunition were cut off, they had to hand over the region in two stages. During the first stage, around 2,500 people, mostly civilians, left the city. During the second stage, which involved the handover last May, 1,950 militants left the city and were transported through UN mediation to the wider al-Dar region in Homs countryside.
In the Khaled Bin al-Walid Mosque, several engineers from the military facilities’ department are working on rehabilitating what the battles destroyed. One of the engineers said, “The mosque’s outer wall was damaged to a large extent, but it will be restored.”
The government attributes great importance to the mosque, which gives its name to a part of the city, al-Walid city. Al-Umawiya School is located near the mosque. The school was until recently used as a detention center for kidnapped civilians and soldiers. A local source stated, “Nobody knows the fate of the missing people yet, and we have not found any trace of them. Some stories report that the militants killed them before handing over the city.”
In the middle of old Homs, which is rich in archeological sites and 12 churches, the damage does not seem extensive. Some houses were burned, while others were slightly damaged. Churches, however, suffered the most. An inhabitant of Hay Bostan al-Dewan said, “Umm al-Zunnar Church was damaged, and so was St. George Church. They are currently undergoing maintenance and restoration, but it will be hard to bring some of them back to the way they were.”
Abu Joseph, who is almost 60 years old, has seen bitter days in the neighborhood. He refused to leave his house, despite the blockade and war. He is among the few people who witnessed all the events in the old city.
“There were difficult times. Militants used to barge in whenever they smelled food and take everything,” he said.
Abu Joseph refused to reveal his full name for fear of them “coming back,” and he refused to say any more about the harsh times he experienced with his elderly sister.
Certain shops were open in the neighborhood, which means that residents have started to return. “Around a hundred families have returned so far,” said a resident of the Bostan neighborhood, adding, “The residents are still afraid. We are trying to get them to return as much as possible because life cannot be the same again without them.”
A pharmacy and a library opened in the neighborhood, and an investor is currently rebuilding his fancy restaurant, which had been destroyed.
The restaurant’s owner said, “Despite the major losses I have suffered, and the money that I will lose when I reopen, I hope this step will be an additional factor encouraging people to return.”
The Syrian government provides neighborhoods retaken by the army a great deal of support. They have fuel oil while other neighborhoods in the city suffer from a lack of fuel. “The government wants to ensure the people that it supports reviving the neighborhoods of this area. This is why they are offering so much,” said a government source.
The famous Baba Amro neighborhood is located southwest of the Old City, which was the militants’ previous stronghold and was under siege for a long time before the Syrian army and its supporting factions decided to launch a military campaign and take control of the neighborhood at the beginning of March 2012. Life in Baba Amro seems to have returned to normal; only the rubble indicates that violent battles had occurred there in the past, in addition to the sad memories in the residents’ homes.
Umm Abdul Rahman was forced to leave the neighborhood twice with her family before she returned for good. The first time was when the militants had control over the neighborhood, and the second time was after they had left and managed to return and regain control of it in March 2013, before the Syrian army finally took complete control and secured the neighborhood after a month of continuous battles.
“The minute they returned to the neighborhood, the militants beheaded Khaled and Seyed al-Ayed on charges of conspiring with the government. They also killed Fatima al-Askar and the trainer at the al-Wathba sports club, Raed Kadour. They murdered more than 200 people as an act of revenge, but some of us were able to flee toward the army’s military checkpoints on the neighborhood’s borders,” said Umm Abdul Rahman.
“The situation is safe now. Many were still afraid to return at first but with time, people believed that security had been restored and began gradually coming back,” she added, remembering the tough moments.
Umm Abdul Rahman told As-Safir that services are now available. “We got fuel for heating and gas is distributed on a weekly basis,” she said. She explained how things have changed since the bloody battles in the neighborhood and the current situation, “There are still empty houses whose residents are still afraid and refusing to return,” she noted.
There are still many empty neighborhoods in Homs waiting for the residents to forget about their pain and return to life in their homes, such as al-Khalidiyah, al-Hamidiyya, Wadi al-Sayeh, al-Ashireh, al-Naziheen, Karm al-Zaytoun, Baba Amro and Joura al-Arayin, whose residents are gradually starting to return. The deep wound at the heart of Syria’s joyful city, however, will take years and years to heal. Half of the city remains alive while the other struggles through pain and sad memories of a war that chose to kill the residents of its neighborhoods.
Syrian rebels and government forces began observing a 10-day truce on January 15 in the last rebel-held area of the central city of Homs, marking another setback for opposition fighters, activists said.
Government forces had blockaded al-Waer for some 20 months, only sporadically allowing in food. It is not clear how many civilians remain in the sprawling area separated from the rest of the city by the Orontes River.
Activist Beibars al-Tilawi said officials promised to allow the U.N. to deliver more food while the two sides discussed how to end the standoff. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the truce.
Al-Tilawi, who spoke from al-Waer via Skype, said the rebels were outgunned, and that the experience of fighters once holed up Homs’ Old City was instructive: the area was destroyed, thousands of civilians were killed or forced to flee, and ultimately rebels negotiated their surrender in May 2014.
“They want to prevent Syrian forces from targeting the al-Waar area with military action, so it won’t be like the Old City of Homs, where in the end, negotiations and diplomacy solved the problem,” al-Tilawi said.
He said the rebels may end up surrendering the area over to government forces or remain there under a more lasting deal. Both approaches have been employed in other parts of Syria in the past.
Western diplomats and local officials have championed local truces as a way of easing the suffering caused by Syria’s four-year conflict, which the U.N. estimates has killed some 220,000 people. But critics say the truces reward Syrian government forces for blockading civilians and that the government does not always live up to its obligation to allow the regular delivery of food and other aid.
Western-backed rebels have been retreating in northern Syria for months, caught between government forces on one side and jihadi groups like the Islamic State and the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front on the other.
Russia, a key ally of President Bashar Assad, is meanwhile hoping to bring the government and the opposition together in a Jan. 26 meeting to agree on the basis of a future dialogue.
Most opposition groups, including the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, have said they will not attend the Moscow talks, saying the framework for the discussions is unclear and the meetings have little chance of success.
In an interview with the Czech newspaper Literarni Noviny, Assad said the two sides would discuss the foundations for a dialogue focusing on Syria’s unity, fighting terrorism and supporting the army.
“As to what I expect from this meeting, I think we should be realistic since we are dealing with personalities,” Assad said. “If we succeed, it’s a good thing. If we don’t, we will not lose anything.”
In Geneva, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura urged the international community to make 2015 the year in which movement toward a political settlement of the conflict takes place. He welcomed the Moscow initiative, but also pushed his idea for a so-called “freeze” in the fighting in the northern city of Aleppo.
“We are aiming at the reduction of violence and possibly a freeze of all military activities, bearing in mind the need of an accelerated humanitarian aid,” he said. “Our hope is that Aleppo could be a signal of goodwill, a confidence-building measure which could and can facilitate the re-starting of a political process with a clear political horizon.”