The sound of shellfire boomed every few seconds from the besieged Old City. The rebels, surrounded in the densely packed quarter, replied with mortars of their own. Each of them detonated with a sharp crack, shaking the walls of the building I was in, a kilometre from the front line. In between shell bursts the regular chatter of machine guns rang out, lasting for at least six hours before subsiding in the early hours of this morning.
The intensity of the fighting in the battered city of Homs, which began unexpectedly on Monday evening, was greater than anything the people here had experienced in months.
The city is one of the centres of the original uprising and has seen some of the most destructive fighting. Even when there is no fighting the city is tense. The streets clear as soon as darkness falls, unlike Damascus where the shops say open late and heavy traffic in the government-held centre does not subside until after 8pm.
A few hours before the shooting intensified, I spoke to Captain Mohammed, who said his frontline position in the Bab al-Sebaa district was 30 metres from where the rebels were dug in. “We are completely surrounding them. There is fighting every day but they can’t get out.” He guessed that the rebels – whom the government side invariably refers to as “terrorists” – numbered over 1,000 fighters.
Contrary to what Captain Mohammed said there are occasional pauses in hostilities. We were standing in a dark, deserted street in the early evening in the Bab al-Sebaa district of Homs, but I did not hear more than a few shots fired in over an hour. But marks of total destruction are everywhere since this is one of Homs’s “ghost districts” where the buildings have been torn apart by shell fire and their walls are pock-marked with bullets so they look as if they had been gnawed by enormous rats. Where buildings survive, their doorways and windows are boarded up and they look abandoned.
Captain Mohammed said he had been fighting in Homs for two-and-a-half years and turned up his right trouser leg to show where he had been wounded by a sniper’s bullet. He thought the enemy was penned into the warren of streets that make up the Old City but they had made use of tunnels to get access to the outside world. He said that “some months ago they came through a tunnel that came out behind where our men were positioned and attacked them from behind, but we killed them all.” He claimed that for all the international furore about starvation in the Old City “they are not short of food, but weapons and ammunition”.
Whatever the Syrian government, under increasing international pressure to allow humanitarian aid into Homs, may want, army commanders on the spot like Captain Mohammed are reluctant to allow their enemies, whom they have been fighting for years, off the hook. Contrary to his belief, aid officials are convinced that people in the Old City are starving.
Sectarianism explains much about the new geography of the city and its hinterland. Homs City and province are much like Lebanon in the number and diversity of their religious sects and ethnic groups including Sunni, Allawi, Christians, Shia, Yazidi, Kurds, Armenians and many other communities. Allawites, the backbone of the National Defence Force militia, are accused of moving into formerly Sunni neighbourhoods. Sunni from the Old City and the “ghost districts” who have not fled to Lebanon or elsewhere in Syria have moved mostly to the al-Wa’ar district of Homs where 400,000 people have taken refuge. Al-Wa’ar is blockaded and subject to intermittent gunfire. On the main road near Homs oil refinery I saw a tank manoeuvre to position itself facing al-Wa’ar and then fire its cannon towards the modern apartment blocks which are common in the district. I has asked the governor’s office if I could visit a military hospital on the edge of al-Wa’ar and they said the road was very risky. They added that I could go by myself “but we frankly can’t get anybody to go with you there because it is so dangerous.”
Sectarian dividing lines and animosities have overlaid the democratic ambitions of those who led the original uprising in 2011. Many of the 1.7 million people in Homs governorate are on the move and fighting for survival. The local head of Unicef, Godfrey Ijumba, says that there are 600,000 internally displaced persons in Homs governorate, adding that “Unicef has distributed winter clothes for half a million of them”.
Violence is frequent and the reasons for it not always obvious. I was looking for soldiers wounded in fighting at al-Zaraa, west of Homs, when I came across a wounded man called Ahmed Mohammed in Tal Kalakh hospital. He had been shot through the hand and the upper leg. I asked him who had shot him. Gasping with pain from a leg wound that doctors were examining, he said: “I don’t know who shot me. I was milking cows in a field near my village when somebody shot me and killed an old man.”
The siege of the Old City of Homs became an international issue at the Geneva II peace conference due to reconvene on 10 February. Ending or at least alleviating the siege has become a test case of whether or not the negotiations could succeed in de-escalating the Syrian conflict. The effort seemed several times to be on the verge of success, but neither government nor opposition wants to hand the other side a real or symbolic victory.
The governor of Homs, Talal al-Barazi, told The Independent that the government will “receive all people from the Old City as refugees who are women, children and old men and they are free to go anywhere.” He says the government will give those who stay what they want. The “terrorists” who are Syrians can give up their weapons and also go.
All this sounds good, but the besieged fighters in the Old City do not want to surrender after so long a struggle. The defence of the Old City has become a heroic symbol of their resistance. And those fighters who do want to surrender may well wonder just how far they can trust the Syrian government once they have given up their arms.
There are 30 different armed groups in the Old City, making any agreement with them a problem. But diplomats familiar with the talks say that there are not many jihadis or foreign fighters there, making negotiations at least possible. Mr Ijumba of Unicef in Homs says that “the main stumbling block is that the 30 groups want guarantees that the aid will still be delivered to the Old City once the civilians are evacuated.”
Complications are piled on complication. Nobody knows how many civilians and fighters are besieged, so how much food should go in after an evacuation? The government does not want to feed armed opponents. At the same time the Syrian government is feeling the international negative publicity from its strategy of besieging and blockading rebel enclaves across Syria. A less obvious difficulty, say diplomats, is that the rebel negotiators in Geneva have never had much connection with the rebels inside the Old City and the diplomats have to bring the two supposed allies together.
The fighters in the Old City are the defenders of the last bastion of the rebellion in Homs and their determination has a symbolic value for the opposition. Almost all the rest of the city has fallen or was always controlled by the Syrian army or is, like al-Wa’ar, quite literally under the gun. But, given the level of hatred and fear in Homs, the UN is quite right to believe that a negotiated solution here might open the door for compromise elsewhere in Syria.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.