Over eight years into one of the Arab world’s most brutal conflicts, the Syrian government wants to create the impression that it will soon reassert control over all of Syria. The city of Homs, once hailed as the “capital of the revolution,” fell to forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in May 2018. However, enduring divisions affirm that the situation is far from being normalized.
Last June, Syrians were reminded of the unity characterizing Homs in the early stages of the uprising. Abdelbasit al-Saroot, a protest leader who later became an opposition combatant, was killed while fighting regime forces in Hama. Saroot, the goalkeeper of Homs’ Karameh soccer team, had led protests in 2011 alongside the Alawite actress Fadwa Suleiman. The image of a Sunni and an Alawite together had helped dispel accusations that the uprising was sectarian. Saroot’s death, however, opened a wound that many Homsis avoided acknowledging. It reminded them that the concord of the past was no more as Homs faces layers of unresolved tensions—with hundreds of thousands of displaced who are unable to return and a society so segregated it is unrecognizable even to residents. Although the military phase may be subsiding, developments in Homs underscore that we may only be entering a new phase of conflict.
Three Principal Layers of Divisions
Although Homs Governorate has returned to government control, a variety of political actors hold different parts of the territory. Three types of division, not mutually exclusive, characterize the governorate today: divisions between supporters of the regime and those who don’t support it; divisions among Homs’ sects; and divisions between the regime’s two main international backers, Russia and Iran. Such dynamics have deepened Homs’ fragmentation, making it difficult for any one entity to assume control and impose a durable peace and stability. Nor would this even be possible without a credible form of transitional justice.
Three types of division, not mutually exclusive, characterize the governorate today: divisions between supporters of the regime and those who don’t support it; divisions among Homs’ sects; and divisions between the regime’s two main international backers, Russia and Iran.
The Regime’s Supporters and Its Opponents
The divide between those who support and don’t support the Syrian regime is the most notable fracture visible in Homs today. The regime’s reconstruction and rehabilitation policies are solidifying this divide. In Homs city, the regime is continuing to deprive former opposition-held quarters, including Bayyada, Waer, and Karam al-Zeitoun, of basic infrastructure, development funding, and services. The regime is also putting up barriers to the return of the displaced. The relatively small numbers allowed back require time-consuming security clearances and permits to rebuild their homes, with no guarantees these will be granted. As of 2015, at least 1.5 million Syrians were wanted by the intelligence services and still cannot return to Syria. In instances where people can do so, they are often forced to live in locations other than their own. This phenomenon, for example, has affected former inhabitants of the city of Qusayr.
The government has also introduced legislation allowing it to confiscate property. Through Law No. 10 of 2018, which allows the government to designate development zones throughout Syria, it has seized property in onetime opposition strongholds for redevelopment. For example, in September 2018 the government rezoned three former opposition-held areas in Homs city—Jouret al-Shiyah, al-Qoussour and al-Qarabis—to build high-rise buildings and shopping centers. Its scheme to compensate property owners showing proof of ownership left the owners with an average of only 17 percent of their property’s value.
In July 2019 the government announced it was in the final stages of revising the Homs Dream Project, which also aims to develop other areas of Homs city with high-rises and commercial areas. Locals have renamed the project the “Homs Nightmare.” The government had sought to implement the project prior to the uprising, but halted it due to local objections because it involved evicting residents of Baba Amr and Jobar, two of Homs’ poorest neighborhoods that later fell to the opposition. The project is now set to move forward under Law No. 10.
The government has also done little to provide services to neighborhoods previously held by the opposition with which it signed reconciliation agreements. Although these agreements guaranteed by Russia mandated a temporary halt to the conscription of young men, the state has effectively tied the issuance of all official papers to approval from the recruitment division. This has forced young men to join the military, leaving their families with limited means of support. Others, even regime supporters, have fled Syria rather than be conscripted under the country’s amnesty laws. These laws have loopholes forcing men to join the military on an emergency basis or face criminal charges. Mazen Gharibah, a researcher and activist from Waer, explained the consequences of the problem: “Even if cement and building materials are acquired, there is no young workforce to rebuild the destroyed houses and businesses. Even loyalist young men who didn’t fight the regime are escaping to have a future.”1
As of May 2019, over 460 of those in Homs reconciled with the regime had been arrested, including civilian local council leaders from Houleh in rural Homs Governorate. Others are being sued by private individuals from their areas for purported crimes committed during the uprising. This aims to keep former dissidents wanting to live in Homs tied up in extended lawsuits, possibly facing prison time. Men are being rounded up despite Russian assurances that signing a Personal Status Settlement with the regime would have afforded them an interregnum of at least six months before conscription. Last summer some were sent to the front lines in northern Hama as cannon fodder.
A Rise in Sectarian Tensions
Syria’s modern history shows that for decades the two Assad regimes sought to weaponize sectarian differences to their advantage. Consequently, as the military conflict today subsides, sectarian fault lines are more pronounced. Homs was arguably Syria’s most diverse governorate, with Alawites, Shia, Christians, and Sunnis living side by side. Yet it is difficult to imagine them coexisting again. The bloody attacks against Houleh, Talkalakh, and Baba Amr are etched in the memories of Sunnis, particularly the participation of Alawite and Christian militias. A doctor from Waer recounted the trauma his patients endured at the hands of Alawite soldiers: “They cannot get out of their mind the thick coastal accent [associated with Alawites] they heard during their torture.”2 Homsis will now routinely attribute sect to whether or not an individual is an Assad loyalist.
Abu Alaa, a former local council member from Homs city’s Shammas quarter, recalled how his Christian and Alawite neighbors were permitted to remain in their homes while his own family and other Sunni families were expelled.3 Malek, another former local council member from the Hamra quarter, spoke of the deep public resentment toward the establishment of the so-called “Sunni market,” or Souq al-Sunna, in the Nuzha and Zahra areas of the city, infamous for selling looted Sunni property from Qusayr and other places.4 Such markets are found in different parts of regime-held areas.
Across Homs, churches are being restored and Greek Orthodox priests have praised Bashar al-Assad in sermons for saving one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Markets in Christian areas are reopening. The Syrian government has authorized United Nations Development Program and UN Habitat funding for areas inhabited by minorities in Homs city, such as Hamidiyyeh and Khaldiyyeh. The neighborhood of Jouret al-Shiyah, which once had a Sunni majority, is also being rebuilt with UN assistance, but without consideration for the original property owners who cannot return. Christian families from the mixed Waer neighborhood, instead of returning to their original homes, are resettling with other minorities, consolidating demographic changes. And although the Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque was rehabilitated by the Chechen Kadyrov Foundation with Russia’s blessing, this is not seen as part of a broader effort to encourage Homs’ Sunnis to return.
Tensions are not limited to relations between Sunnis and non-Sunnis. Though rarely discussed, deep resentment also exists among Alawites in marginalized areas of Homs, who have seen no change in their access to basic needs. The Bustan Charity, formerly controlled by Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, rewarded the highest echelons of Syria’s political and military leadership but not average Alawite families who had sent young men to die in the regime’s defense.5
Tensions are not limited to relations between Sunnis and non-Sunnis. Though rarely discussed, deep resentment also exists among Alawites in marginalized areas of Homs, who have seen no change in their access to basic needs.
Iranian and Russian Relations in Homs
After the Syrian regime and its main allies, Russia and Iran, defeated opposition forces in Homs Governorate, they seized large swathes of land. Russian- and Iranian-backed forces exercised power in a distinct fashion and each carved out territory without significant hostilities between them. But while Homs Governorate has reverted back to regime control, this means little on the ground, especially in the governorate’s southern and northern rural areas, because the regime is hardly visible. In many areas it has been relegated to an intelligence gathering role instead of taking on responsibilities for the welfare of citizens with a monopoly over military power. The intelligence services also compete for control among themselves and fail to coordinate their activities.6
Russia has brokered many of the reconciliation agreements between opposition fighters and the regime, including in Homs. The Russian Center for the Reconciliation of Opposition Sides, based at the Hmeimim airbase, coordinates the reconciliation processes and the actions of Russian military police. For example, regime intelligence branches initially were in charge of talks over the withdrawal of rebels from the Waer quarter, but by the end of 2016 Russian generals were in control, offering concessions in exchange for the surrender of weapons or the transfer of rebels to Idlib. At one point, according to former negotiators, only the Russian flag was visible during negotiations.7
By managing reconciliation talks, the Russians portrayed themselves as peacekeepers, in contrast with regime and Iranian forces that preferred to take territory by force. Following reconciliation agreements, Russian military police generally were the first to appear. They manned checkpoints and managed a limited number of returning refugees and internally displaced persons. The returnees were largely regime affiliates, apolitical individuals, or the elderly. The appearance of orderly reconciliation processes guaranteed by Russia initially created confidence that the negotiating terms would be honored. The Russians also leveraged the perception that they were dependable to convince former opposition members to join the Fifth Corps, a unit that Russia trained, advised, and equipped. The Russians have allowed former rebels to keep their weapons and control their areas in exchange for pledging loyalty to the unit, even convincing some to fight in Idlib where the rebels are concentrated today.
However, as Russian military police retreated from Homs city in mid- to late 2018, pro-regime units, such as the National Defense Force, were given control. They created an atmosphere of terror as the regime apprehended thousands of people, reneging on promises not to arrest those who had been reconciled.
Meanwhile, Iran is also busy cementing its influence throughout Homs. The pro-Iranian Hezbollah virtually controls the southwestern rural areas of Syria that connect to Lebanese villages in the Beqaa Valley. Qusayr, an area with a population of roughly 30,000 people before 2011, lost over half that number in 2011 during Hezbollah’s offensive.8 In mid-July 2019, for the first time and with Hezbollah’s approval, the regime permitted 300 families to return. In October, another 750 internally displaced were allowed back, so long as they promised not to rehabilitate their homes or conduct other reconstruction activities.9 They were mostly civil servants and those who had cooperated with regime officials, along with their families.10 Hezbollah, which itself had settled families in Qusayr, ordered them to make way for the original inhabitants if they held property deeds.11 Like the Russians, Iranian-backed militias are recruiting men reconciled with the regime, giving them arms and permitting them to hold their areas if they join militias sustained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran’s influence has also affected Homs’ social fabric. In September 2017, at a soccer match between Syria and Iran, Syrians living in the Iranian-dominated Mazraa quarter cheered for Iran against the Syrian national team. This angered Sunni locals, who increasingly view Syrians living under Iranian authority as foreign agents. Iran’s tactic of gaining supporters through religious proselytism has increased the possibility of armed clashes between Sunnis on the one hand, and Shia and Alawites, perceived as being aligned with Assad, on the other.
While direct Iranian-Russian confrontations have not been reported, tensions may be rising in Homs and other parts of Syria.12 Both Russia and Iran are seeking to secure access to Syria’s ports, natural resources, and infrastructure projects. The Russians have also remained relatively passive in the face of Israeli attacks against Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, which has provoked criticism in Tehran. Both seek to have major influence in Syria while investing as little as possible given everything they have spent so far. That is why co-opting local fighters is optimal. It offers former rebels Russian or Iranian protection, sparing them from conscription or detention by a regime that, in the words of a former Talbiseh council member, “never keeps its word.”13
According to unconfirmed reports, there has been friction between Russian-backed and Iranian-backed Syrian units. For example, in Talbiseh in late 2018 Hezbollah arrested and tortured Manhal al-Daheek of Jaysh al-Tawheed after he had led a raid on Shia villages. Daheek had pledged allegiance to the Fifth Corps. When the Russians were informed, they secured his release.14 However, he was again detained last July by Hezbollah, and remains in custody.15
The Need for Transitional Justice
Homs Governorate is part of a much larger, broken Syria. The country’s divisions show that elements of conflict persist and the regime appears incapable of easily resolving them. Yet, as Syria transitions into a new phase, such divisions must be addressed if Homs is to experience lasting peace.
War-weary Syrians inside Homs Governorate are, for now, focused on surviving. Those living in former opposition strongholds have to face sporadic arrest and bullying by the regime and its followers, who are eager to blame them for Syria’s destruction. But even regime loyalists are not safe from harassment. Instead, Syria’s leadership is rewarding the political elite and minorities it needs to consolidate power. It is leaving behind many Homsis, even poor Alawites who fought on its behalf. The regime continues to treat Syria as the property of the Assads and their close associates, not of all its citizens.
That is why genuine transitional justice, as a parallel track to the political process, is needed if Syria is to move forward. This would require the prosecution of those in Syria’s leadership who authorized mass detentions, killings, torture, and rape. It would also mean elucidating the fate of the disappeared. In conversation many Syrians also want action to be taken against businessmen who profited from housing, land, and development laws and whom they view as complicit in the war crime of forced displacement. It is equally crucial to sanction foreign businesses and international organizations that participated in projects violating humanitarian principles to avoid future violations.
Transitional justice also means reversing many of the laws enacted since 2011 related to conscription, housing, and terrorism, which have paralyzed society. Such a process can take place through both international and Syrian tribunals, allowing Syrians to seek justice through legal and reconciliatory means not violence. The problem with all of this is that the regime will not oversee a process in which it prosecutes itself and its allies. Therefore, the assumption that the regime would want to, or could, lead Syria toward stability seems fantastical.
Transitional justice also means reversing many of the laws enacted since 2011 related to conscription, housing, and terrorism, which have paralyzed society.
A Groundwork for Future Conflict
Homs’ future will remain bleak for as long as it remains deeply fractured and the root causes of its destruction never addressed. Freezing current conditions and assuming that tensions will sort themselves out is unrealistic. What has been left behind is devastating. However, the future may bring even more dangerous consequences because of the absence of a unified, representative authority that can address what brought about the tragedies in Homs’ recent past.
Rifts between those who support and don’t support the regime, among religious sects, and between Russia and Iran are all open to exploitation. The regime may seek to profit from divisions in order to survive, as may international actors pursuing their foreign policy or business interests. The ensuing turmoil will only fuel resentment, laying the groundwork for forthcoming conflicts. An entire generation of children has known only violence, and they have little recollection of how Homs was once a myriad of religions and sects. Absent transitional justice, this is the risk we face. The fact that the Syrian regime has come out on the winning side of an uprising that has produced a horrific number of casualties, while displacing half the Syrian population with complete impunity, will never set Syria on a path toward a peaceful future. That will require genuine accountability and justice.
About the Author
Jomana Qaddour is a Syrian-American lawyer and doctoral student at Georgetown University Law Center focusing on the Syrian constitution and ethnosectarian power sharing.
1 Telephone conversation with the author, July 11, 2019.
2 Conversation with the author, Amman, Jordan, June 2013.
3 Conversation with the author, Gaziantep, Turkey, July 18, 2019. Abu Alaa asked that his full name not be used.
4 Conversation with the author, Gaziantep, Turkey, July 18, 2019. Malek asked that his full name not be used.
5 Conversation between the author and a former local council member from the Damascus Road part of Homs city, in Gaziantep, July 18, 2019.
6 Telephone conversation with one of the founders of the coordinating committee in the rural area of Talbiseh, July 10, 2019.
7 Telephone conversation with Mazen Gharibah, July 11, 2019.
8 Telephone conversation with a former local council member who had lived in Qusayr, July 13, 2019.
9 Telephone conversation with former local council member who had lived in Qusayr, October 4, 2019.
10 Telephone conversation with former local council member who had lived in Qusayr, July 13, 2019.
12 Also based on conversations with Navvar Saban, military analyst at the Omran Center, in Washington, D.C., September 24, 2019.
13 Telephone conversation with one of the founders of the coordinating committee in the rural area of Talbiseh, July 10, 2019.
14 Conversation with Malek, a former local council member in the Hamra neighborhood of Homs, Gaziantep, July 18, 2019.
15 Conversation with Navvar Saban, Washington, D.C., September 24, 2019.