For many in Syria, destruction of the defiant city will underscore the futility of negotiations with the regime
In Syria, they raze cities to the ground from time to time – pour encourager les autres. Thirty years ago, an Islamist insurgency was suffocated in the rubble of Hama. This week, it is Homs – a city on which shells have fallen like rain – that will, in the grotesque euphemism of the regime, be “cleaned”.
The ground assault that may unfold over the coming days, focusing on the rebel enclave of Baba Amr, is likely to eventually be a military success. But if the regime hopes for closure, it will be disappointed. Patrick Seale has written that “Hama [in 1982] was a last-ditch battle which one side or the other had to win and which, one way or the other, would decide the fate of the country”.
But Homs will not decide the fate of the country. It is not a last-ditch battle. Far from being a lone revolutionary bridgehead, it is only the most prominent symptom of a malaise afflicting huge parts of Syria. The city’s destruction will probably harden national resistance, which has surpassed in scale and breadth that which took place in the 1970s and 1980s. It will shatter what little hopes were left of a political settlement.
The regime’s Fourth Division – a unit dominated by the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs, and commanded by the president’s brother – is reported to have been tasked with the invasion of Homs. That division was previously scrambling to retake control of Damascus’s suburbs. If it has been redeployed, that will create new openings around the capital for both protesters and insurgents.
Moreover, the battle for Homs may result in protracted urban warfare. On Wednesday, the Syrian government promised that it was “mopping up” the last vestiges of resistance in the city. On Thursday, it appeared stuck, battling, probing around the outskirts. This process will tie up and weaken a crucial part of the army.
There is a danger, however, in looking at Syria’s revolution as a conventional military struggle. It is a political challenge to the regime’s ability to govern, and one that may even be empowered by the loss of territory.
The American journalist Nir Rosen, after two months travelling across Syria, describes a “new-found solidarity between different parts of the country, with urban dwellers in Homs or Damascus rising up – in part out of support for Syrians in villages in other parts of the country – and with wealthy Syrians organising aid for Syrians in slums they have probably never visited”. From Idlib in the north to Deraa in the south, Homs’s eventual destruction will underscore the futility of negotiations, and the pointlessness of surrender.
This does not mean that the revolution is anywhere near victory. Traditionally, the symbolism of massacres – imminent (Benghazi, 2011) or complete (Račak, 1999) – has bridged the gap between diplomacy and war. There will be no such deliverance for Syrians, in part because there remains a gulf between the opposition’s exiled, squabbling high command and those who wield the guns on the ground.
Moreover, if the violence at Homs precipitates revenge attacks by aggrieved local militants, fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, or by jihadists looking to exploit the turmoil, this may further cleave Syria’s sectarian fault-lines and push minority communities into the arms of the government.
A new draft UN security council resolution is now circulating, aimed at humanitarian access rather than political change. Russia and China have a difficult calculation. They know that their obstructionism has pushed Saudi Arabia and Qatar to intensify the flow of arms to favoured Sunni clients in the insurgency.
It would be better for a humanitarian corridor to be established under terms favourable to Assad. It might also take some of the sting out of the international horror likely to result from the pictures that will flow out of Homs. Neither state would want to stand isolated with their veto in the security council. A modest resolution might just pass through the gap between them.
Perhaps, though, Moscow and Beijing are hoping that Assad will finally rid them of this troublesome city; that Homs will be made an example as stark as Grozny or Tiananmen. That would be a mistake. The fall of Homs will mark a new, more bitter phase in the Syrian civil war.
from Shashank Joshi