Syria’s central city of Homs is in a state of quasi-civil war, as violence becomes a daily routine, with sectarianism increasing and living conditions deteriorating, say residents and government opponents.
Some 160km north of Damascus, Homs has become a focal point of the conflict between government forces and protesters demanding that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad step down.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says more than 5,000 people have died across the country since the popular uprising began in March. According to the Violence Documentation Center a website run by a network of Syrians in different cities, more than 1,800 have died in Homs alone as a result of the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.
But what began as peaceful protests have taken an increasingly violent turn in Homs. Some locals have now formed an armed resistance to the regime’s forces, supported by members of the Free Syrian Army, a paramilitary organization composed of army deserters.
“Armed people are roaming the city and are regularly clashing with the army,” a resident of Homs told IRIN. The military presence in the town of 820,000 has increased significantly in the past few weeks and many opponents fear the regime could try to strike the city with a decisive blow, as it did to quell a revolt in the city of Hama in the 1980s, killing tens of thousands of civilians.
“There are tanks and soldiers everywhere in the city,” said Alaa, a 20-year-old student protester. “The Free Syrian Army is playing a crucial role by protecting the civilian population and responding to the violence of the regime,” she added.
Omar Idlibi, a prominent dissident who fled Syria and a leading member of the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), the main opposition network on the ground in Syria, acknowledged a shift towards violence among the regime’s opponents.
“The nature of people and their will to protect their families are making some of them seek revenge and engage in violent acts. This is the kind of behaviour that we refuse entirely,” he is quoted as saying in a statement released by the LCC in early December.
Homs, a major transportation node that forms a crossroads between the main regions of the country, used to be a microcosm of the national mosaic - made up of a mix of ethnic and religious groups, including Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Alawis, members of a minority offshoot of Shia Islam to which al-Assad belongs.
But activists say neighbours of different sects who used to live side by side peacefully have increasingly turned against one another.
Initially, the LCC accused government-allied militia of kidnapping protesters, with the number of kidnappings rising in November, it said.
But increasingly, residents say, civilians have been behind sectarian-coloured counter-kidnappings of government forces, but also of Alawi and Christian civilians, as well as Sunnis considered to be spies for the government. The LCC maintains that some counter-kidnappings are conducted only to secure the release of captured civilians.
“There should not be any doubt of the regime’s entire responsibility for the sectarian turn of events in Homs,” opposition figure and author Yassin Haj Saleh said in the LCC statement. The regime “starved [the people] and incited hate between the people of different neighbourhoods,” he said.
But other well-placed sources said they had received reports that opposition groups were behind much of the violence in Homs. The resident quoted earlier said the kidnappings seemed to be conducted mostly by Sunnis, and said he knew of three Christians who had been kidnapped in two days this week.
Risk of humanitarian crisis
In what he described as a deliberate policy aimed at “punishing” the protesters, one government opponent in Homs told IRIN that some restive areas were indeed besieged by the regime’s forces.
“Electricity there is cut off for several hours every day. Food as well as basic products, such as gas and heating oil, are difficult to find and have to be smuggled, which make them much more expensive than before,” he explained.
At this time of year, the temperature in Homs can near zero degrees at night, and there is much concern that some among the most vulnerable people, especially young children and the elderly, might not survive in those harsh conditions.
Public services in the city are still running, except in areas where clashes are taking place. Shops remain in business, though they close early; and schools are open, though many parents are afraid to send their children to class after one school came under fire, according to a second protester.
The situation is further aggravated by the fact that many people from restive areas do not want to access public medical services, because they fear they might get arrested at hospitals.
“We rely on the aid provided by clandestine doctors and volunteers from the Red Crescent,” said the first opponent said.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are the only aid agencies with access to Homs, and have distributed food supplies and medical kits to the local population.
“Since May, we’ve never really stopped. Our involvement is now even bigger than before,” Saleh Dabbakeh, ICRC spokesperson in Damascus, told IRIN. “The volunteers from the SARC are doing an amazing job, but it remains difficult for them to access certain critical areas, where they might get killed or kidnapped,” he added. He said ICRC volunteers have to deal with both the army at checkpoints and leaders of neighbourhoods once they are inside, and urged all actors to facilitate their work.
Activists say there are now clear signs that the city is heading towards a major security and humanitarian crisis.
“We’re at the end of the road. We can't take this much longer,” said the first opponent. “It's getting worse every day. Keep us alive!… Stop the killing by security.”
The Syrian government agreed earlier this week to an Arab League plan which calls for international observers to be allowed into the country. The League’s mission is scheduled to begin on 22 December, but observers question how much it will accomplish, given it is not allowed to access “sensitive military sites”.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), almost three million people have been affected by the civil unrest in Syria. This includes thousands who have fled the country, and many more who have sought refuge with family and friends away from their homes. Food and fuel prices have risen and the economy is in decline.