Syria Unleashes Assault to Take an Unbowed City
By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
November 7, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government has launched a bloody assault to retake Homs, the country’s third-largest city, facing armed defectors who have prevented the government’s forces from seizing it as they did other restive locales this summer, in what may stand as one of the most violent episodes in an eight-month uprising.
The specter of civil war has long hung over Homs, the most tenacious and determined of cities opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, where the city’s Sunni Muslim majority has closed ranks behind the revolt. This month, parts of the city have become an urban battlefield, with activists saying government forces have killed 111 people in just five days, opposition groups warning of dire shortages forced by the siege and residents complaining of lawlessness by marauding soldiers and paramilitary fighters.
The strife comes as mediation by the Arab League has apparently collapsed in one of the latest efforts to end what is among the most ferocious crackdowns on the revolts sweeping the Arab world this year. The government has increasingly demonstrated it will continue to try to stanch dissent by force, ignoring the relatively muted protests of the international community.
As important, in a country fraught with fears of a broader civil war, Homs may be emerging as an example to the rest of Syria of the relative success of fighting back against a military that, while still unified, has suffered more defections as fighting persists and more than 3,000 civilians have been killed.
“Homs is a turning point for now,” said an analyst based in Damascus who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s a successful model of self-defense, if you will, at a time when you really can’t expect people to take any more. They’ve seen too many corpses come back, too many people arrested, disappeared or returned after abominable treatment. It’s too much. And everybody seems to be losing control of the street.”
Just as Hama, a city that rivals Homs in size, was retaken at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, violence has shaken Homs during an important Muslim holiday, Id al-Adha, which began Sunday. But Homs and its relatively unified Sunni Muslim majority have offered much more resistance than Hama and other large towns, including Deir al-Zour and Latakia, which the government stormed in August, at the onset of a shift in strategy to crush the uprising almost solely through force of arms.
On Monday, residents of Homs described harrowing scenes of abandoned streets and relentless gunfire, which sent some residents fleeing and forced others to remain indoors for fear of not being able to return to their houses. Death announcements clutter walls, residents said, testifying to the carnage in the city, which is near the Lebanese border.
“What a night, what a night,” said a woman in her 50s who lives in Inshaat, a troubled neighborhood that borders Baba Amr, the most embattled area of the city.
Amid the reverberations of gunfire and explosions, she said she had tried to check on her mother, who is in her mid-80s and lives in an apartment upstairs.
“I didn’t want to turn on the lights of the stairs because there are snipers everywhere, and they will shoot whenever they see the lights,” she said. “I felt that the air was being sucked out of the room by the intensity and frequency of the explosions.”
Her account was echoed by residents reached by telephone across the city. Many called the fighting the worst in Homs since the uprising began in mid-March.
“The city is an open wound,” said Mohammed Saleh, who fled Homs with his daughter on Sunday for the safer environs of the capital, Damascus.
Activists with the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group that helps organize and document demonstrations, said citizens were suffering from shortages of food, fuel, baby formula and medical supplies, in particular blood. One activist said only one bakery was working for every four neighborhoods.
“There’s no life in parts of the city,” said Omar Idlibi, an exiled opposition activist whose family remains in Homs. “The regime wants the city to kneel.”
In some ways, Homs is a microcosm of Syria, with a Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Mr. Assad draws much of his top leadership. Unlike the countryside, where sectarian tension runs deeper, Homs managed to rely on established ties between communities.
But in the past months, those relationships have frayed. While residents say many Christians have tried to remain on the sidelines, tensions have deepened between Sunnis and Alawites, as the most severe challenge to four decades of the Assad family’s authoritarian grip on the nation continues to burn.
Sectarian massacres apparently convulsed the city and its environs last week, and loyalists and critics of the government have been made targets for assassination in paroxysms of violence at least redolent of Iraq’s grimmer days. While the government exercised a monopoly on violence in the uprising’s early months, more and more defectors have sought refuge in Homs, particularly in Baba Amr, and activists and residents say a portion have begun carrying out regular attacks on the security services.
Inside the city, residents say, the Sunni majority has thrown its weight behind the uprising, while in other cities the government still enjoys substantial support. Some worried what the legacy of the violence would mean for the city’s social fabric.
“It’s going to take unbelievable political and social efforts to restore normalcy again to the city after what it’s gone through,” said Fayez Sara, an opposition figure in Damascus. “It’s going to be very hard for us to reach a political solution after this.”
Mr. Sara called the crackdown “a full-scale assault on the city.”
Since last week, residents say, the military has sent tanks and reinforcements to the city. Activists said Monday that defectors had withdrawn from Baba Amr, whose streets were largely abandoned, and that the army and paramilitary forces had moved in overnight, though other neighborhoods were still apparently resisting their entry.
Some people said they believed the army was showing signs of exhaustion. One resident said several young soldiers had knocked on her door to ask for food, water and blankets. “I felt bad for them,” she said. She later left Homs for Lebanon to observe the Muslim holiday, and neighbors told her that her house had been looted.
Since soon after the uprising started, analysts have speculated that the security forces — largely Alawite and deeply loyal to the leadership — would have to overextend themselves and eventually reach a breaking point. The analyst based in Damascus said that in Homs, in particular, the government had to rely more on the largely Sunni military than on the security forces, and that more defections had occurred.
“They need the military at a time the military is proving unreliable,” he said.
But even with the resistance by defectors, and the relative cohesion of the city’s Sunni majority, the balance of power remains with the government.
“If the authorities stop their operations, then everyone will stop fighting,” Mr. Sara said. “The defectors and the people don’t have enough weapons or strength to wage a war against a professional and disciplined army. We cannot talk about a war between them because they’re not equal powers. It’s impossible for defectors to keep the city.”
Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting.