Hassan Hammami, a real estate developer turned activist, was arrested by the Syrian regime just as the anti-government movement was gaining serious momentum. He spent 18 months in a prison in Homs, a city in central Syria. “When I got out of prison and saw what I saw,” he told a reporter from Buzzfeed not long ago, “I wished they hadn’t released me.”For centuries, Homs has been fought over and sought after by waves of conquerors. It has been destroyed and rebuilt countless times. As the Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi noted in 985—at a time when Byzantine soldiers repeatedly attacked the city to plunder what they could and slaughter the city’s inhabitants—Homs has suffered “great misfortunes” and often has been “threatened with ruin.”The present conflict is little different, though the scale of destruction is perhaps greater. Anti-regime forces once considered Homs ground zero of their resistance against Assad, the “Capital of the Revolution.” They are now on the brink of losing it, their last stronghold in central Syria. Anne Barnard of the New York Times reports from the city:
Lately, Homs has become a center of the government’s strategy of blockading and starving insurgent-held areas. A February cease-fire, which included an amnesty, allowed 1,500 civilians, subsisting on grass and leaves, to depart the Old City, and brought brief hope that Homs might find a path to common ground. […]
Now, as insurgents who long held much of the Old City make what could be their last stand against withering bombardment, and the government declares it is on the verge of fully controlling the city, Homs — not for the first time — represents an important turning point for Syria. If the government is victorious here, it will control a devastated landscape, a physically fragmented and socially divided city where many community bonds, not just houses, have been destroyed.
Though Homs was once famous for the way its many religious and ethnic groups lived peaceably side by side, sectarianism is rising as hope for an end to the conflict evaporates. The Christians have mostly disappeared. So have many Muslims. “In their place are men with guns, on both sides, with vested interests in continued conflict.”It’s do or die for the rebels who remain. The nearby city of Qusayr, strategically situated along a highway between Homs and Lebanon, from which the rebels were able to maintain a key supply route, fell to the regime in an offensive almost a year ago.If Homs falls the rebels will lose something they fought desperately to keep. Not only was it once the capital of their revolution, it is the last city they can claim to control at least part of in central Syria. It is also an emblem of what was once the moderate wing of the anti-government rebellion. To the north, ISIS and other extremist groups now reign supreme. The moderate rebels have been destroyed, or, like Hammami, have fled to Turkey.According to reports, the United States and Saudi Arabia have begun equipping some rebel groups with sophisticated anti-tank weapons. Many American and Israeli policymakers are petrified that these weapons will fall into the hands of extremists who will use them to target civilians. In the end, it’s probably too little, too late—these weapons are unlikely to make a difference in the war, and certainly not in Homs.Slowly, the regime advances. Homs isn’t likely to last much longer. What else will perish with it?