Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Kevin Mazur
Predatory capitalism and central authorities’ acts of misrule feature prominently in accounts of contestation, violence, and reconstruction in the contemporary Middle East. And for good reason—decay of welfare systems, arbitrary force exercised by security forces, and real estate projects of regime allies were central factors pushing average citizens onto the street across the region in the wave of uprisings beginning in 2011. Syria is no exception; reduction of fuel and agricultural subsidies, widespread property expropriation in the Damascus suburbs, and the entry of cheap Turkish products due to free trade agreements are among the many economic factors pushing average citizens toward revolt. Yet the state’s economic mismanagement and intrusions into the lives of average citizens are not the only factors setting the stage for prolonged, violent conflict; this is true even in Syria, where a case of particularly egregious state-encouraged predatory capitalism and callous use of violence against civilians.
Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, was the site of some of the earliest and most intense violence as the 2011 uprising turned into a prolonged intrastate war. But in Homs, neither neoliberal expropriation nor state violence were the primary factors pushing towards violent conflict. The governor’s plan to expel historic residents of the city center and rebuild with Gulf financing languished for years and was cancelled within weeks of the first protests, and violent conflict between neighborhoods in Homs broke out in early April 2011, while security forces were largely trying to manage tensions, rather than stoke them.
Patterns of urban development in Homs suggest an additional factor structuring conflict and violence: the state’s willingness to tolerate violations of formal urban planning rules and accommodate the communities breaking those rules. Patterns of informal settlement tolerated by the regime reproduced dense, closed networks of villages and old urban quarters, now in close proximity to one another. These networks enjoyed differential access to state resources and power; networks sharing the regime’s ʿAlawi identity tended to have far greater access than the city’s generational Sunni residents and more recent Sunni migrants.
This differential access to state resources and power set the stage for conflict among social actors. Once demonstrators turned out on the streets of Homs in March 2011 to demand political reform and express solidarity with challengers in other parts of the country, it took little outside provocation for interactions between challengers and state supporters to revolve around local divisions. Regime violence directed at challengers was, by far, the greatest factor in the city’s dramatic descent into violence in late 2011, but clashes on neighborhood lines, sectarian discourse, and kidnappings had already appeared in Homs in the early months of the uprising—to a far greater extent than in much of the rest of Syria over the same period. How the state structured (or, more properly, did little to structure) patterns of urban development played an important role in this legacy.
Following the 1963 military coup that brought the Ba’th Party to power, the bureaucracy and public sector industry expanded greatly; this rapid expansion in employment opportunities, combined with public services and cultural attractions, drew many migrants from the countryside. The population of Homs increased by over 150 percent between 1961 and 1980, with the bulk of this increase resulting from rural to urban migration. City officials recognized the need to manage this growth, and commissioned multiple urban plans in the 1960s aimed at limiting the city’s spatial expansion into surrounding countryside. Consistent with its corporatist, Arab Socialist approach to industrialization, the Syrian state vested in itself responsibility for housing new urban residents. Laws passed in the 1970s and early 1980s made the state and state-affiliated cooperatives the only legal developers for any lands outside the master plan. Yet the state was unable to build sufficient housing to keep up with the rapid migration from the countryside as early as the 1970s.
The result was that migrants from the countryside began buying agricultural land on the city’s periphery and building homes in an unplanned fashion. Chain migration would accentuate this tendency, with subsequent waves of migrants settling in the same area as relatives and acquaintances from the from the same village. Local government in Homs adopted a particularly conciliatory approach to spontaneous settlements, overlooking these settlements’ violation of zoning rules and providing generally high levels of public services such as electricity and water.
As a result, most building in Homs since the 1970s has been done by individuals in an unorganized, spontaneous fashion in areas on the city’s periphery, outside the master plan and technically in violation of it. This form of building reproduced dense networks on the city’s periphery. A senior government housing official describes the residents of these quarters as “families without links to the city or any belonging to it in the first place, who arrived and lived there and have the particularities of the localities and communities that they arrived from… [who] begin to have a cultural and social patrimony particular to each of these neighborhoods.”
Though these local communities were not densely linked to one another, some did have robust ties to the state, and these ties were highly stratified by religious identity. ʿAlawi communities—understood here as networks based upon extended family ties or shared village identity—and had far more numerous and consequential ties to the state than Sunni communities; the city and its economic life were historically dominated by urban Sunnis, while semi-nomadic (Sunni) tribes lived on its outskirts and sold animal products to urbanites, and ʿAlawis were historically peasants with little presence in the city. With the advent of mass migration in the 1960s, employment in the military, the bureaucracy, and state industry were the main avenues open to ʿAlawi migrants; they lacked the skills, networks, and cultural practices of the historically powerful actors in the city, but disproportionately held the family and village linkages that would prove central to obtaining public sector employment. This ʿAlawi preponderance in public employment did not mean that an ʿAlawi could obtain one of these lucrative positions just by showing up to a state ministry and indicating his or her sect. Personal connections, typically through immediate family members, cousins, or uncles, were critical to this process; complaints recurred among my Alawi interviewees about their inability to obtain such a job for lack of those connections.
Prior to 2011, these patterns of settlement and differential access to state power intermittently manifest themselves in social conflict. When Hafez al-Asad died in 2000, youths from an ʿAlawi neighborhood went to the edge of the abutting Sunni neighborhood with knives and sticks, setting off a confrontation that killed one and injured ten. Several years later, a Sunni resident of a spontaneous neighborhood killed an ʿAlawi resident of an abutting neighborhood; tribal leaders and the governor of Homs had to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
Demonstrations for civic reform in 2011 gave way to violent conflict for similar reasons. In the first major demonstration in Homs, on March 25, 2011, protesters could be heard primarily chanting slogans of inclusive, anti-sectarian rhetoric (e.g. “one, one, one, the Syrian people are one”) but sectarian chants (ex. “we want to speak openly, we don’t want to see ʿAlawis here”) appeared on the margins and some demonstrators screamed insults in the face of security officers (e.g. “curse your soul, Hafez al-Asad, and the donkey you spawned”). ʿAlawi civilians accompanied police and security forces to these early demonstrations and, though the latter exercised restraint, they allowed ʿAlawi civilians to throw rocks at protesters and beat them with sticks (interviews with Homs residents). Growing state repression in the following months pushed some challengers to begin bearing arms. By July, armed clashes and kidnappings along sectarian lines became widespread, dividing Homs into Sunni neighborhoods and Alawi neighborhoods. The regime undertook an extended siege of several neighborhoods in January 2012 and in March began shelling Baba ʿAmr, one of the residential neighborhoods to which it had laid siege. State violence is the main culprit in the destruction of several of the city’s neighborhoods, but it accentuated separations and conflicts preceding the 2011 uprising, rather than creating them out of whole cloth (interviews with Homs residents).
The factors behind the outbreak and escalation of conflict are more than just a historical question in Homs and other cities that are sites of war—understanding what pitted social actors against one another and facilitated their mobilization for violence can help clarify how reconstruction might ameliorate (or accentuate) the factors that caused conflict in the first place. The case of Homs underscores the centrality of state-driven violence to conflict, while also drawing attention to the state’s more passive strategies of rule; tolerating spontaneous settlement and providing informal access to power set social actors against one another in ways that facilitated the rapid transformation of demands for political reform to violent conflict occurring primarily across religious lines.
References and Further Reading
Bishara, Azmi. 2013. Sūrīyā, Darb Al-Ālām Naḥwa Al-Ḥurrīya: Muḥāwalah Fī Al-Tārīkh Al-Rāhin [Syria, a Path to Freedom from Suffering: An Attempt in Contemporary History]. Beirut: al-Markaz al-ʿArabi lil-Abhath wa-Dirasat al-Siyasat.
Dayeri, Eyas al-. 2007. “مناطق السكن العشوائي في سوريا وربطها مع خصائص الأسر والسكن [Neighborhoods of Spontaneous Housing in Syria and Their Linkages with Specificities of Families and Residents].” Damascus: Public Housing Institution for Planning Affairs and Housing Studies.
Dbiyat, Mohamed al-. 1995. Homs et Hama en Syrie Centrale: Concurrence Urbaine et Développement Régional. Damas: Institut Français de Damas.
Fares, Walid al-. 2015. Ḥimṣ, Al-Ḥiṣār Al-ʻaẓīm: Tawthīq Sabʻamiʼat Yawm Min Al-Ḥiṣār [Homs, the Great Siege: A Chronicle of 700 Days of Siege]. Beirut: al-Markaz al-ʻArabī lil-Abḥāth wa-Dirāsat al-Siyāsāt.
Zaman al-Wasl. 2007. “حلم حمص التفاصيل الكاملة مع الصور [Homs Dream: complete details with pictures].” Zaman al-Wasl, December 25, 2007. www.zamanalwsl.net/news/article/2612.
Zaman al-Wasl. 2011. “إعلان وفاة حلم حمص رسميً [Announcement of the Death of the Homs Dream].” Zaman Al-Wasl, July 24, 2011. https://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/20564.html.
Kevin Mazur is a Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. His research examines the role of ethnic identity and social structure in creating and contesting political order in the Arab world. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Comparative Politics, Comparative Political Studies, and Middle East Report. He holds a PhD from the Department of Politics at Princeton University. Kevin Mazur has been a visiting fellow at the Orient Institute Beirut in 2019.
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Citation: Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.09.2019 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19572.