By a Syrian expat originally from Homs for Syria Comment
This article is an attempt to provide a brief synopsis of the history and the socio-economic fabric of the city. This will help explain why Homs is the center of anti-government demonstrations and potentially the future site of intense sectarian violence.
Homs before the 1900s
Homs was a small city with less than 50,000 inhabitants (Now around 1 million) . The city was largely homogenous (Sunni Muslim) albeit having an affluent Christian minority (
Homs from the Arab Revolt through independence
Upon the great Arab Revolt, the city’s local and traditional leadership broke away from the Ottoman patronage. Families that once represented religious leaderships (most notably the Atassis) allied themselves with Sharif Hussien and recruited the tribal strong men of Dandachi and Bani Khalid to their cause. The same commercial and religious elite thrived. Affluence was largely a family business while social mobility was achieved though public office and/or marriage among landowning, religious and commercial families. This continued to be the case through the French Mandate and early independence years and the city social and power makeup remained unchanged. Economically, the city was largely a market to the surrounding countryside.
The Arab Socialist era and the new social fabric
The creation of the Syrian army by the French, which was made up mostly by minorities, the advancement of Arab socialist ideologies, and the creation and expansion of government bureaucracy and civil servant class, helped weaken the traditional social order in the city. An alliance was forged between low-level civil servants, army officers, and countryside peasantry (from all sects), all under the umbrella of socialism, helped create a hybrid socialist-military rule.
People from the countryside flooded the city creating new neighborhoods. The Alawis occupied the south-eastern quarters. Christian newcomers occupied large parts of the old city and the Sunni settled west, north, and east of the old city walls. Civil service and access to education became the new vehicle to social mobility (for example a teacher’s salary in the 60s-70s was enough for a family to live a middle class life).
Things changed in the late 70s aspower became more and more concentrated in the hands of minority army officers and it became evident that minorities and Baathists were favored for government jobs. This and other factors of regional politics created sectarian tensions in the country and the city and the clashes between the Mulsim Brothers and the government were largely sectarian and very violent.
The defeat of the Muslim brotherhood in 1982 in Hamah, and the government’s retaliatory policies that followed, created a sense of defeat in the Sunni community. Also, the economic collapse 1980s facilitated the return of traditional social dynamics in the community: commerce, marriage, and working abroad (mostly in the Persian Gulf States) became the vehicle for social mobility in that community. The traditional Sunni community was punished and was no longer an active participant in the state.
Homs in the last 20 years
Sunnis from the countryside who had occupied the vast poor neighborhoods east and north of the city integrated well into Homsi society. They quickly adopted the city’s social norms and developed antipathy towards the state for the same reasons that the indigenous inhabitants of the city’s core had. This created a unified “Sunni” identity across all city neighborhoods whether rich or poor, religious or not.
Alawites on the other hand didn’t integrate as well. They retained their distinct accent and their links to their home villages, and are active participants in the hated government agencies (Army, Mukhabarat, and civil service).
Feelings of deep mistrust characterize the relationship between the Sunni and Alawi communities.
The risk of Civil War
Unlike the events with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s, the demonstrations in Homs are not fueled by religious hatred or Salafi extremism; instead it’s fueled by the desire for a more political participation in the country and equal opportunity. All said, the brutal crackdown on demonstrators is intensifying resent in the Sunni community and its putting it at odds with the Alawi community that largely supports the regime. As a result, Homs is the likely candidate for neighborhood-to-neighborhood civil war similar to that of Lebanon’s civil war.