You are on page 1of 6

Syrias Stalingrad

Assad hopes to turn Homs into a symbol of his


government's resurgent fortunes but it
might end up as an icon of his utter brutality.

BY THANASSIS CAMBANIS-DECEMBER 23, 2015


HOMS, Syria More than four years of relentless shelling and shooting have ravaged
beyond recognition this city, which once served as the symbolic capital of the
revolution.
The buildings hang in tatters, concrete floors collapsed like sandcastles, twisted
reinforced metal bars and window frames creaking in the wind like weather vanes. The

only humans are occasional military guards, huddling in the foundations of stripped
buildings. Deep trenches have been dug in thoroughfares to expose rebel tunnels.
Everywhere the guts of buildings and homes face the street, their private contents
slowly melting in the elements. Ten-foot weeds have erupted through the concrete.
As far as the government of Syria is concerned, the war in Homs is over. Rebel
factions were defeated more than a year ago in the Old City, and the last holdouts,
who carried on the revolt from the suburb of al-Waer, signed a cease-fire agreement
this month. A few weeks before Christmas, busloads of fighters quit al-Waer for rebelheld villages to the north, under what the Syrian government and the United
Nations hailed as a breakthrough cease-fire agreement to bring peace to one of the
Syrian wars most symbolic battlefields.
Gov. Talal al-Barazi, an energetic Assad-supporting Sunni, has been instrumental in
pushing the cease-fires in Homss Old City and recently in al-Waer district. But almost
none of the pro-uprising Sunnis who once filled its center have returned, and at times
he seems to be presiding over a graveyard an epic ruin destined to join Hiroshima,
Dresden, and Stalingrad in the historical lexicon of siege and destruction.
By the end of a two-year siege of the Old City, the entire population of about 200,000
had fled, and more than 70 percent of the buildings in the area were destroyed. Today,
according to the Syrian government, less than one-third of those who left have
returned to the Homs area but the ravaged city center is largely uninhabitable.
Barazi said the cost of physically rebuilding the city would be enormous; without help
from Russia, Iran, China, and other international donors, he said, full reconstruction
would be impossible. Experts estimate it will cost upwards of $200 billion to rebuild
across the entire country, or three times the countrys pre-war GDP.
And yet the Syrian government hopes to turn this shattered city into a symbol of its
resurgent fortunes.Authorities showcase the reconstruction of Homs to spread a clear
message: They intend to regain full control of the country. If they can tame Homs, a
Sunni city where the majority of people actively embraced the revolt, they can do it
anywhere.
Theres another more menacing message in the Homs settlement, however, as the
neighborhoods that wholeheartedly sided with the revolution were entirely destroyed
and have been left to collapse after the governments victory. Almost no Sunnis have
been allowed to return. Displaced supporters of the revolt from Homs understand that
this is the regimes second wave of punishment they might never be allowed to go
home.
This is the Homs model from the regimes perspective: surround and besiege rebelheld areas until the price is so high that any surviving fighters surrender. The
destruction left behind serves as a deterrent for others. Supporters of the government
say that fear of a repeat of the ravaging of Homs is one major reason why militias
around Damascus, like Zahran Alloushs Army of Islam, have largely kept their
indiscriminate shelling of the city center to a minimum.

The rebels, of course, take a different lesson: Assad will annihilate any opposition he
can, unless the rebels fight hard and long enough to win, secure an enclave, or, at the
very least, force the government to allow safe passage to another rebel-held area.
Only force can extract concessions from the state.
***
A recent visit to Homs laid bare the deep divisions in the city and the near-impossibility
of restoring what existed there before: a majority Sunni, but markedly mixed,
community, more conservative and provincial than Damascus, but one that managed
to successfully coexist despite profound communal differences.
As I stood in the middle of Khaldiehs main square, in the center of Old Homs, I could
recognize the bones of a familiar cityscape. Storefronts and five-story apartment
blocks surrounded me. Avenues led in six directions from the roundabout.
I had seen this place before in video footage, when it played host to popular protests
and later guerrilla fighting, and still later to a relentless barrage of Syrian government
artillery intended to bludgeon all resistance. What remains today is an obliterated
landscape that would be worthy of a dystopian sci-fi flick, if it werent so real.
The only sound, the ubiquitous sound, is the whistle of the wind, as loud as in the
desert but incongruous in the heart of an ancient urban core.
My government minder fell silent after pointing out now-vanished landmarks. As we
prepared to leave the square, she gestured dejectedly. You cant rebuild this, she
said.
The desolation continued for blocks in every direction, only abating up the hill toward
Hamidiyeh, a mixed neighborhood to which a few dozen families, some Sunni, some
Christian, have returned.
A bicycle parked outside a bombed schoolhouse is the only sign that you have
reached the re-inhabited part of Khaldieh. Two boys kicked a soccer ball in a narrow
courtyard delineated by rubble and broken walls. They pointed us in the direction of
Maamoun Street, which begins at a grand Ottoman-era house, with a fountain and
interior courtyard. One window had been refashioned into a snipers nest, a car frame
shoved into the window.
Abdulatif Tawfik al-Attar, 64, is one of the few Sunnis to have returned to the Old City,
the historic district near the center of Homs. Perhaps he was trusted by the
government because of his outspoken criticism of the rebels, whom he said came and
destroyed everything.
Now Attar is slowly rebuilding his shattered life. His wife and daughter live in a rented
apartment on the outskirts of Homs while he restores their home to livable condition,
room by room. Before the war, he worked as a mechanic at a government refinery.
Now he repairs bicycles in his entryway.
He cherishes what he considers his ample blessings. All three of his children survived
the war, he still draws a government salary, and the walls of his home are still

standing. For me, the situation could be far worse, he said.


A chatty man who dropped out of high school for his first job, Attar finds it difficult to sit
still. Hes ready to brew tea on a portable burner hooked to a car battery or prepare a
water pipe for guests who like to smoke. But in the Old City, hardly anybody drops by
to visit, except for a middle-aged neighbor also painstaking reconstructing his house.
It is lonely here sometimes, Attar admitted. He apologized for the spartan conditions
in his home. His son invited the family to join him in Saudi Arabia, but Attar said he
wasnt interested. I love my country, he said. I dont want to live anywhere else.
Quietly, he began to cry. We have lost a lot in Syria, especially in Homs, he said. We
didnt used to have women begging outside the mosques.
After a moment he said, Homs will be back.
The local Ministry of Information official charged with supervising journalists in Homs,
an Alawite who also hails from the city, began to cry as well. One of her sons died
fighting for the government in Daraa; her husband and remaining two sons are still on
active duty in the military.
We have lost so much, she agreed, fingering the gold pendant she wears around her
neck engraved with her slain sons portrait. Even our own children.
Attar squeezed the officials arm to comfort her. Dont be sad, he said. No one dies
before it is written. People run away from the war to escape death, and they die in the
sea. People went on the hajj, and 800 died in a stampede.
One day the war in the rest of Syria will come to an end, they said, as it has in Homs
but if Syria is to recover, it will have to transcend the sectarian divisions
exacerbated by the war.
Those men who have hurt us have hurt themselves, too, Attar said. God knows
what everyone has done. Human beings make mistakes.
The minder quoted a saying she attributed to former President Hafez al-Assad, father
of Syrias current leader: Religion is for God, and the nation is for everyone.
Thats how we grew up, she said. If you live in a country with government, land,
home, you want to forgive so that you dont lose everything.
***
These pro-government Homs residents expressed nostalgia for a version of
coexistence that worked for them. But the Assad government so far has offered rebels
few options beyond submission and surrender nothing that looks like increased
rights for the majority of citizens. Homs Gov. Barazi, for instance, argues that as the
city limps back to life, people will return, including Sunnis who might have sympathized
with the uprising.
Between Christmas and New Years, you will see a new Old Homs, Barazi said, in an
interview on the sidelines of a conference in Damascus about how to reboot the Syrian

economy. Once the shops open, you will see the things go back to life.
He said the occasional car bomb or shell that strikes Homs didnt threaten the citys
overall security. Its much safer in Homs than in Damascus, he said.
Many government supporters dont like the cease-fires that Barazi has championed,
especially because they allow some fighters to flee and continue fighting elsewhere.
The recent deal in al-Waer allows those rebels who surrender their heavy weapons to
remain and govern their neighborhood. Activists suspect the government might round
up rebels and dissidents later.
His strategy is to start with quick anchor projects in the worst-hit parts of Old Homs:
rebuilding schools, historic places of worship like the Notre Dame de la Ceinture
Church and the Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, and now 400 stalls in the old
marketplace. He is counting on Russia, China, and Iran to foot the bill of what will be
an enormously expensive project. He estimates that maybe one-third of the displaced
residents from Old Homs have returned to the city, if not yet to their original homes.
Several Christian parochial schools reopened this fall in the Hamidiyeh quarter of Old
Homs. About 200 students came to the first day of school, out of a pre-war enrollment
of 4,000 in the neighborhood, according to Father Antonios, a priest who helps run the
Ghassanieh School. At pickup time, parents said they still didnt feel safe in their old
neighborhood. Were doing a lot of work to reassure people, the priest said.
The governments strategy overlooks the daunting, practical obstacles to resuscitating
a city as thoroughly ravaged as Homs. It also ignores the bitter feelings of the people
who supported the revolution and will never reconcile themselves to Assads rule.
Homs might yet be a model, but perhaps not the one intended by Syrian government
officials it might end up as this wars lasting symbol of ethnic cleansing or urban
siege war without restraint. The governments showcase plan doesnt make room for
the legions of Homs natives who rose up demanding rights from a government that
systematically tortures its citizens and allows them no say over how theyre governed.
Anti-government activists also say that Sunnis are systematically denied permission to
return to the Old City because authorities suspect that a reconstituted Homs will
continue to act as a bastion of resistance.
People still support the revolution, said a retired resident, who never left Homs
throughout the war.The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of
government retribution against his family members.
Homs proved the futility of expecting the Syrian government to reform, this resident
said. He lamented how it responded to peaceful protests with lethal force and
indiscriminate arrests and torture.
For six months, no one carried so much as a knife. When the regime began killing
them, they defended themselves, the resident said. Im so sad about Syria. I stopped
thinking about the future a long time ago. I live one day at a time.
Periodically during the siege of al-Waer district, this resident smuggled in food and

meat to civilians. With like-minded friends, the resident cheered advances of the rebel
Free Syrian Army on battlefronts around the country. Today, the resident said,
depression has set in, with the government precariously in charge of a city that once
felt like the first liberated place in Syria.
I feel like I will explode, the resident said. All these people died, in every possible
way, for what? I cant believe that everything will finish and Bashar al-Assad will still be
president. I would rather die.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
Posted by Thavam