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The evacuation of Homs: Humanitarianism or ethnic cleansing?

During the now dead and buried Geneva peace talks, the Syrian opposition and government reached a deal allowing evacuation of the 3,500 residents of the Old City of Homs, which has been under siege and bombardment for nearly 600 days. The deal was presented as a breakthrough in the Syrian conflict. Its terms allowed food to be brought in to the starving people of the Old City and residents to leave if they wish. Since then 1,400 residents, malnourished, many elderly, and some wounded, have left the Old City. However, what happened after the agreement is a testament to the regime's bad faith. Homs is on the faultline of the Syrian conflict. It was the first major Syrian city to see widespread protests against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, but it also contains Alawi-majority districts which are fiercely loyal to the regime. After the agreement was signed pro-regime Facebook pages began saying that food would not be allowed to reach the "terrorists" in the old city. A UN convoy carrying food aid was first blocked by residents of the pro-government districts and then fired on by the National Defence Forces, a pro-regime militia, killing several people. Hundreds of men aged 15 to 55 were detained by government forces – and the fate of many of them remains unknown.

There are fears that this deal may be the latest chapter in an alleged regime campaign to change the demographic balance of the city and its surrounding areas. Before 2011 Homs had a Sunni majority. Once a thriving city of approximately 700,000, it is today a broken ruin. The regime loyalist Alawi-majority districts are today the only areas of the city where normal life continues. Regime bombs have fallen relentlessly every day on the rest of the city, destroying apartment buildings, shops, and historic mosques. Entire districts, such as Khalidiya, Baba Amr, Jourat al Shiah, Bayada and Warsha have been emptied of their inhabitants and completely destroyed. Many of Homs's residents have fled from the centre of the city to the outer suburbs, such as Wa'r, which has taken in at least 200,000 refugees and is completely surrounded by the regime. Others are now outside the city or outside the country. In the Old City, not a single building remains intact and the siege on the inhabitants was complete and total before the agreement. No food was allowed to enter – starvation and deaths from treatable injuries were the norm. Residents had to bring in their food from under the sewers to avoid starvation. The Old City lost most of its population before the latest agreement and now only a few hundred more will remain.

Syrian village of Qalat al-HosnWest of Homs lie the Alawi majority coastal mountains, where President Bashar al-Assad's family come from. There are Sunni towns and villages on the road from the mountains to Homs which have been under constant attack from government forces, away from the eyes of the world. Qalat al-Hosn, a community of 9,000 people located strategically at the foot of the medieval Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, has been under siege for more than a year. Khaled al Hosne, an activist I spoke to, says that its inhabitants now exist on a diet of weeds and grass and people have already starved to death. The town is located in the middle of a mixed Alawi and Christian area and is bombarded daily with heavy artillery, surface to surface missiles, barrel bombs, and helicopter gunships. Pro-government Facebook pages, such as Wadi al-Nasara News and Tal Kalakh National News give detailed daily updates on its bombardment, and activists report that over the past month more than 150 people have been killed and hundreds more have been injured. The ancient castle, a UNESCO world heritage site, has itself been deliberately targeted, with no media coverage in the West. There is a real danger that the inhabitants of Qalat al-Hosn will be massacred if their town is overrun by pro-government militia. Threats to do this have already been made. Neighbouring Sunni towns have received the same and worse treatment, and the regime's worst massacres, such as those in Tremseh, Houla, Qubair, and Banias, have taken place in Sunni towns in or near Alawi areas.

There is a great deal of evidence that the regime is carrying out sectarian cleansing. The recent evacuation of civilians from Homs, supervised by the United Nations, plays right into the regime's hands. It is the latest phase of the displacement of the people of Homs and the surrounding areas. The regime publicly disavows sectarianism, but sectarian militias from Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon have entered the country to fight alongside it and the pattern of the regime's attacks speaks for itself. In the 1960s Alawi army officers discussed plans for a separate state with Homs as its capital. The displacement of the inhabitants of Homs and its countryside now make that prospect more realistic. Following the failure of the Geneva II talks, it would be a great tragedy if the international community were to fail in protecting the civilians of the Homs region and allow the regime to carry on slaughtering and displacing its inhabitants. The Syrian revolution began with protests calling for freedom, democracy, and dignity but it could end with a nightmare of sectarian cleansing and genocide.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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