Originally commissioned January 2016
The regime’s declared victory in Homs is fast seeming a pyrrhic one, with the city in ruins, few returning and continued sectarian violence, offering a possible glimpse into the future of a Syria ‘at peace’.
A series of deals have led to the withdrawal of opposition forces from Homs and the regime has declared victory, however, the city is now in ruins.
Few Sunnis have thus far returned to their homes in the once-thriving, mixed city, and violent attacks continue against Shias.
As regime forces advance, a Syria ‘at peace’ is once again possible, but the situation in Homs demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining this.
In December of last year, a truce led to fighters (as many as 2,000) being allowed safe passage out of the last rebel-held area of Homs, in the old city, after a three-year siege. A few days later, the Syrian army held a victory parade through the city, with videos showing crowded streets of people waving flags. This was undoubtedly a boost for the Assad regime, but Homs is now, for the most part, in ruins and restoring it will take significant time and money. The regime has won back a city whose economy has been devastated and whose population is depleted. Moreover, the rebels were allowed to leave carrying light arms, continuing their opposition elsewhere.
In late January of this year, a joint car and suicide bombing at a checkpoint in Homs in a Shia neighborhood, claimed by Daesh, killed dozens and wounded over 100. This is the most recent in a series of devastating suicide bombings by the group in Homs since its capture. Before the revolution, Homs was a majority Sunni city but with a significant Shia minority. Since the recapture, few Sunnis have returned and entire neighborhoods remain abandoned. The recent Daesh attack demonstrates that despite the army’s victory, stability remains elusive, as does a return to Homs’ relatively cosmopolitan past.
The Syrian government in November last year dropped 800 barrel bombs on Darayya, a western suburb of Damascus, which, under siege for four years, has seen some of the conflict’s heaviest bombing. Darayya’s population may have dropped to as low as 12,000, from its pre-conflict 170,000. The new wave of bombing was reportedly intended to isolate the suburb from neighboring Moadamiyat al-Sham, where opposition groups negotiated a truce in late 2013, after seeing the area’s population drop from 100,000 to 15,000 and suffering a chemical weapons attack. Civilian return to Moadamiyat al-Sham was prevented after Daesh and Jahbat al-Nusra launched an offensive to capture the neighborhood; now, after another truce, allowing Daesh and al-Nusra fighters to leave, 4,000 civilians have reportedly returned, with water and electricity still intermittent. Moreover, the Syrian army maintains its distance from the neighborhood.
Commentators have hailed these local truces as means of building trust on which to reach a country-wide agreement. However, national reconciliation will be difficult to build on truces in neighborhoods that have been almost completely leveled, where the depleted population has faced starvation and indiscriminate shelling. Indeed, in many of these areas where truces had brought an end to fighting, violence has erupted again. In the crackdown of the 1982 Islamist uprising in Hama, the Syrian army leveled parts of the city, killing as many as 40,000 people. The brutality of this crackdown informs the current Syrian conflict. The example of Hama is being repeated across the country neighborhood by neighborhood, sowing the seeds of a future Syria, likely to be either divided or restive. The regime presumably hopes its population will be too war-weary to ever resist again.