Last updated: 7 February, 2014

Besieged Homs a key flashpoint in Syria war

The Syrian city of Homs, dubbed “the capital of the revolution” by rebels, has been a key flashpoint since the early days of the almost three-year-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

A major battleground ever since a popular uprising rapidly morphed into an armed insurgency, only a handful of districts in the heart of the city still remain under opposition control.

The rebel areas, which include the Old City, have been under choking army siege for more than 600 days.

Activists frequently report severe food and medical shortages, with some 3,000 people — including 1,200 women, children, and elderly people — trapped there, surviving on little more than grass and olives.

On Friday, an evacuation of civilians from the besieged neighbourhoods began after peace talks in Geneva last month brought together regime and opposition representatives.

Homs has long been a key flashpoint. Early in the uprising which broke out in March 2011, thousands of people protested regularly in the city centre.

Then starting early 2012, the army launched a string of massive offensives aimed at recapturing rebel areas of Syria’s third city.

In February 2012, the Baba Amr district was bombarded using tanks, helicopters, mortars and rockets, killing hundreds of people. The neighbourhood fell to army control on March 1.

The attacks cost the lives of American war reporter Marie Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik on February 22, when a building that served as a makeshift media centre was struck by an army shell.

The army then took back other neighbourhoods, including Bayada and Inshaat. In summer 2013, the army captured rebel bastion Khaldiyeh.

AFP journalists who visited Khaldiyeh said it had suffered enormous destruction because of the daily bombings and battles.

The shrine of the historic Khalid Bin Walid mosque, located in the ravaged neighbourhood, was destroyed in shelling shortly before the army stormed the district.

Assad’s regime has long claimed that Syria’s revolt was a foreign-backed “terrorist” plot, while rights groups have accused it of using heavy weaponry, including the air force, to target rebel neighbourhoods indiscriminately.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says there are no buildings safe enough to inhabit in the areas still under rebel control, while communications, electricity and water have been cut off for months.

But the rebel neighbourhoods are only a tiny fraction of Homs city. Much of the rest is in government hands.

With Damascus the political capital and the northern city of Aleppo the main commercial hub, Homs is a major industrial centre in the centre and was once home to some 1.6 million people.

It is the provincial capital of Homs province, the largest and most strategic in the country, lying on key trade routes near the borders with Lebanon and Iraq.

Homs also sits on a faultline of sectarian tensions within Syria. Mainly divided along confessional lines, Sunni, Alawite, Christian and mixed neighbourhoods have co-existed uneasily.

Sunnis consider themselves to be the true natives of the city and never took kindly to the mass influx of Alawites — members of a Shiite sect to which Assad also belongs — to Homs and its surrounding districts since the late 1960s.