Two days into a general strike called by the Syrian opposition, observation of the action in cities around the country appears to be patchy. But in the city of Homs, the heart of the Syrian revolution, there’s not much need for a general strike—most people sit at home all day anyway. Since the Syrian Army turned its guns on peaceful demonstrators in the city’s main square in April, Homs has been under an almost total military lockdown.
I visited Homs two weeks ago and spoke to an activist there by phone this week. It is a city that appears to be on the edge of catastrophe. Reports suggest the Syrian Army is digging trenches around the city, perhaps to prevent rebels from outside Homs from joining activists in the city to fight off a rumored attack by the Army. Tanks have also been seen on the outskirts of the city, according to some reports.
In the last few months the number of people killed in the conflict there has quickly risen, leaving Homs as the violent, claustrophobic epicenter of the Syrian uprising. Many of the city’s residents have taken up arms, either to defend themselves from the Army and its shadowy paramilitaries or to go on the offensive. A spate of grisly murders—first of Sunni political activists, then of Alawite paramilitaries—has given the conflict an alarming hint of sectarianism.
On Monday, I spoke by phone to Mohammed, an opposition activist hiding out in the Al-Shams area of Homs near Al-Baath University. For the most part, he said, Homs was pretty much as I’d left it; a city struggling to hold itself together under a ruthless army of occupation. The phones were now working, he said, after a period in which they were cut off. The Internet was often down. Worse, “the water supply is being turned on and off; the authorities are playing with us.” One area of the city, Al-Bayaada, remained without power. People are also suffering from a lack of heating oil and gasoline, Mohammed told me; it’s not that supplies don’t exist, but ordinary residents are too afraid of getting shot by snipers to go and fetch it.
Last week an oil refinery was blown up outside the city, Mohammed said, but he wasn’t sure who was responsible. Very few people voted in the local elections on Monday, he said, except in areas where the government has significant popular support. In one of those areas, nine people were wounded in a bomb attack while people were voting.
Mohammed was concerned that rumors and reports of sectarian killings would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “These things do happen,” he said, “but they’re exaggerated. It’s dangerous. There are good people here on both sides who are spending time trying to calm these tensions down. And it’s working.” In fact, Mohammed said, the underground opposition counts many Alawite Muslims among its most militant supporters. “I’ve been spending much of my time recently hiding out in a cellar, living with Alawite activists and protected by other Alawites,” he said.
Mohammed was also skeptical of the rumors of the deadline and the impending attack. It’s “a fantasy, not true at all,” he said. “It was simply invented.”
On Tuesday the United Nations put the number killed by the security forces in Syria at 5,000. Many of them will have been killed in Homs. One man I met in the city two weeks ago took me aside and told me, sotto voce, that 5,000 people had been killed in Homs alone. These figures are impossible to verify.
The Syrian Army remains in control of the center of the city and has free movement on its periphery. Homs is a city waiting in fear—and defiance.