Homs residents wonder: why aren’t soldiers shooting at us?

 
Images of Syrian armed forces opening fire at a protesting crowd have become so frequent that they’re almost routine. It’s when they don’t shoot that it comes as a surprise. That’s what makes this footage of soldiers peacefully chatting with residents of the city of Homs on July 17 so unusual.
 
Homs, Syria’s cultural capital, has been one of the most active protest hubs in the popular uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Two forces have led the repression against the local population: police and local ‘chabiha’ militias, who have repeatedly opened fire on peaceful sit-ins, and the Syrian army, whose tanks rolled into the city in early June and haven’t left since.
 
Violence reached unprecedented levels in the city over the weekend of July 16-17. For the first time, a group of Sunni Muslims (the majority religious current in Syria) clashed with members of the Alawi Muslim minority, of which al-Assad and most of the ruling Baath party are members. At least 30 people were killed, according to eyewitness reports.
 
According to Rami Abdel Rahmane, from the Syrian Human Rights Observatory, the religious violence was egged on by security forces (this has been confirmed by several of our Observers). The clashes gave authorities a pretext to launch yet another brutal crackdown on the city.
 
In the neighbourhood of Khalidiya, in Homs, soldiers remain impassive and chat with residents while protest slogans and chants can clearly be heard in the background. Video posted on YouTube by SHAMSNN.
 
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“The majority of soldiers are Sunni Muslims, like us. They may feel closer to us than to their own leaders”

Mona (not her real name) is one of our Observers in Homs. Because international journalists are not authorised to report in Syria, foreign news media rely almost entirely on reports by ordinary citizens like her. We have confirmed her account with several of our other Observers in the city.
 
Regularly, new army troops are sent to Homs to quash the protest movement. On July 17, a new batch had just arrived in the neighbourhood of Khalidiya. Residents decided to try to approach them. They knew that the majority of soldiers are Sunni Muslims, like us. As a result, they may feel closer to us than to their own leaders, who are mostly Alawi Muslims.
 
So the residents brought them food and water, and began chatting with them. They told them to make themselves at home, that they were welcome in Homs. The soldiers looked pleased. Shortly afterwards, a protest was organised not far from there by neighbourhood youths. The soldiers did nothing to stop them.
 
Later, members of the Syrian secret services reportedly ordered the soldiers to shoot people who were surrounding hospitals to prevent authorities from carrying away the bodies of dead protesters. The soldiers refused.
 
Another regiment was sent to Khalidiya soon afterwards, but it too remained passive. Now we’re hearing that they plan to send the Fourth army division, led by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, the most feared and brutal division of all. [According to one of our Observers, the Fourth division did in fact arrive in Homs on July 19, and it shot at a crowd gathered for the funeral of protesters].
 
“The soldiers in the neighbourhood of Khalidiya aren’t shooting, but neither are they protecting the population.”
 
The attitude of soldiers in Khalidiya doesn’t reflect that of the majority of the army. On July 18, an extremely violent armed repression took place in the entire city, led by secret services, armed militias and other military regiments. They cut the power in the city last night. My father was in his car. He was forced to turn the car lights off to avoid being shot at. Security forces also shot at my uncle’s home because there was a light turned on in his garden. They don’t want people to be able to see what’s going on.
 
The residents of Khalidiya were especially targeted – I’ve heard six people were killed there on July 18 alone. The soldiers in the neighbourhood aren’t shooting, but neither are they protecting the population. According to my contacts there, the friendly regiment is still around. [According to a person who saw a protest in Khalidiya being dispersed on Tuesday, the regiment was present when police in civilian clothes opened fire at the crowd, but they didn’t actively participate in the repression]. Some people thought the passive soldiers would be punished, even executed, but surprisingly this hasn’t been the case. This has fuelled some speculation that the army may just be lying low to reassure protesters before cracking down harder.”
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ségolène Malterre.

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