Mock Homs at Your Own Risk

The epicenter of Syria's revolt has long been the butt of jokes. But Homs may get the last laugh.

One day, the late Hafez al-Assad was going to visit Homs. His defense minister ordered the Honor Guard to fire 21 shots to welcome the Syrian president as he descended from the plane. A Homsi soldier asked him: "Sir, what if I succeed in killing him with the first shot -- shall we waste 20 more of them for nothing?"

In light of the increasingly bloody crackdown on Homs by President Bashar al-Assad, Hafez's son, that joke is no longer considered funny. The droll image of Syria's third-largest city is fading away as the Assad regime's assault, now in its 11th month, escalates. It is the slow death of an old reputation: For centuries, laughter has filled the cafés of Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama as Syrians exchanged jokes mocking the intelligence of the Homsis.

The typical jibe goes something like this: A Homsi approaches a man on the street. "Where is the other side of the road?" he asks. "There," answered the man, pointing at the other side. "For God's sake," said the Homsi. "When I was there they told me it is here!"

Why the Homsis? Perhaps they have become the butt of Syria's jokes because they are the country's eternal rebels. Throughout history, they have held a unique place in Syria's social and political fabric, prompting amazement, ridicule, and even anger from their neighbors. The Homsi jokes reflect the competing moral values, uncertain social boundaries, and competing power structures of Syrian society, whether in times of peace or war.

It all began two millennia ago. The inhabitants of the ancient city of Emesa, which would become Homs, were known for worshiping Elgabalus -- the God of the Sun -- as well as for keeping pagan traditions, such as the celebration of the "Day of the Fool," alive. On this day any form of bizarre behavior was tolerated, and soon the celebration has become a very popular event in the city. Although Homsis later converted en masse to Christianity and then Islam, celebrating the "Day of the Fool" remained a tradition until the middle of the 20th century, according to French scholar Jean-Yves Gillon.

But this strange holiday is not the only reason Homsis are treated as Syria's iconoclasts. In the 7th century, Homs was conquered by the Muslim army of the famous military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. Soon, it became the first Syrian city with a significant Muslim population -- a fact that encouraged Caliph Umar, the second caliph following the death of Prophet Muhammad, to assign Homs as regional center. Inhabitants of other historical cities -- such as Hama, Palmyra, and Tartus -- envied their new overlords, as seen by the sharp increase in the number of poems denigrating Homsis.

In the conflicts between what would become the Umayyad dynasty and Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the Homsis sided with Ali, with many of them joining his forces in the Battle of Siffin in 657. After the defeat of Ali in 659, Homsis lost their privileged status and then, eight decades later, when one of the tribes in Homs revolted against the last Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, many of them were slaughtered, tortured, and mutilated.

Due to its strategic position, Homs often became a center of intrigue for several rebelling dynasties -- and the scornful narratives continued to flow. "I was walking in Homs and saw a flock of goats followed by a camel," the famous prose writer and poet al-Jahiz wrote in the 9th century. "I heard a man asking, ‘Is this camel from the family of the sheep?' ‘No,' replied the other. ‘It is an orphan so they adopted it.'"

The negative stereotypes about Homsis returned in force during the 11th century, when the Mirdasid dynasty recaptured the city and converted it to Shia Islam. Homsis very soon became victims of the polemical debates between Sunni and Shia clerics. The famous Sunni cleric Ibn al-Jawzi recorded many ironic narratives about the strange habits of Homsi religious officials and the supposed stupidity of their followers.

According to one anecdote, three Homsi religious students were discussing a hadith - a saying of Prophet Muhammad -- about the parts of the human body. "The nose is for smelling, the mouth is for eating, the tongue is for speaking," they concluded. "But what is the ear for?" As the hadith did not give the answer, they decided to ask their sheikh.  On their way to the sheikh's house, however, they saw a tailor patching a cloth. The tailor was cutting pieces of yarn and hanging them on his ear. "God has sent us the answer," the students concluded, and returned to the mosque.

Homs has long been a bastion of resistance -- first as a Muslim stronghold in the efforts to repel European invaders during the Crusades, and then as a base for Mamluk commanders' war against the Mongols. But such heroism did not rid Homsis of their age-old stigma. Rather, many linked Homsis' victories to their alleged simple-mindedness.

According to one anecdote, on the "Day of the Fool," the elders of Homs decided to open the city's gates to the enemy. The Mongols entered and found people wearing their clothes backwards and walking backwards on the streets. The Mongol leader thought the locals were sick, and immediately ordered a retreat to avoid the infection of his soldiers. The real history of Homs, however, does not show such a good sense of humor: After the fall of the Mamluks, the city was ravaged by Arab bedouin raids and began to decline.

Once incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century Homs regained its status as an economic center, becoming a hub for the trade of silk, olive oil and animals linking the northern and southern cities of the empire. Due to its booming economic activity and weaving industry, a British consul labeled Homs "the Manchester of Syria" in the late 19th century.

The city's golden years, however, came to an end with the demise of the Ottomans. Homs was incorporated into the state of Damascus during the French Mandate that followed World War I. Due to their city's declining economic importance, Homsis quickly joined the revolution against the French in 1925, with bandits in the region launching raids against French troops. One of the generals of the revolution, Mazhar al-Sibai, was also of Homsi origin.

By 1932, tensions had ebbed sufficiently that the French moved their military academy from Damascus to Homs, where it remained the sole military academy in Syria until 1967. Hafez al-Assad himself was a graduate of the academy -- but his years in the institute did not make him sentimental toward the city. The Alawite president stabilized his grip on power by cutting deals with the Sunni elite of Damascus and Aleppo -- leaving Homs's majority Sunni community in the lurch.

As a result, Homsis were again consigned to play the role of the fool in coffee-house jokes. During the 1973 war, a typical gag goes, a Homsi soldier was playing with a grenade. His fellow soldier warned him to watch out as it might explode. "Don't worry," replied the Homsi. "I've got other ones!"

Once again in its tumultuous history, Homs finds itself in the eye of the storm. As Bashar al-Assad's regime continues its horrifying assault on the city, gallows humor has become the order of the day. "Why do the Homsis rebel?" a pro-Assad voice asked on Twitter recently. "They are fed up with the Homsi jokes."

This time, however, nobody is laughing.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images


Getting to Zero

If Obama does cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by 80 percent, it won't endanger national security. It also won't be enough.

U.S. President Barack Obama's conservative opponents in the media and on Capitol Hill whacked him hard this week after someone leaked details of a classified Pentagon-led review of options for reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as 80 percent. The Associated Press story published late Tuesday, Feb. 14, claimed that the review contained "at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400."

"Can you believe that the American people will stand by for this … so clearly putting the nation's defense at risk?" said Liz Cheney on Fox News. Radio host Rush Limbaugh called it "downright scary" and a shift in the balance of power toward Russia "by design." Equating reducing nuclear weapons with reducing American power, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "The idea that making ourselves weaker will somehow lead to increased global security and stability is ridiculous."

The administration has responded with a procedural defense. "This was all part of a nuclear posture review mandated by law," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "There are a number of options. One is to maintain the status quo. It is a process of discussion within the national security team."

Officials have thus far not discussed the strategic basis of any new policy. But it's worth asking, would it really be so crazy to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 300 deployed weapons?

First, a few numbers. There are an estimated 20,500 nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia hold over 95 percent of them, or about 19,500 weapons. (The United States has about 5,000 weapons in its active stockpile, with 1,790 counted under the New START treaty as deployed strategic weapons, plus about 3,500 weapons waiting to be dismantled.) The other seven nuclear-armed states together account for about 1,000 weapons, with only one -- France -- having more than 300. North Korea, a potential adversary, has fewer than 10. China, the only other conceivable adversary, has about 200, only 30 to 40 of which are on missiles capable of hitting the continental United States.

Since 1986, global arsenals have declined from their Cold War peak of some 65,000 weapons, reflecting changing global threats. Historically, Republicans have taken the initiative on making some of the biggest nuclear cuts. Ronald Reagan, working with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, cut intermediate-range weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union by 100 percent, retiring thousands of missiles. George H.W. Bush reduced the total stockpile by 50 percent, thanks primarily to his unilateral decision to retire all the nuclear weapons deployed by the Army and the Navy's surface fleet. George W. Bush also intended to make unilateral reductions, but was convinced by Congress to negotiate a treaty with the Russians instead. By the time he left office, Bush, like his father, had cut the total stockpile by another 50 percent.

"I don't recall too many Republican complaining or fretting about those reductions, the latter of which took place during a period when we were fighting two wars, when North Korea conducted two nuclear tests, and when Iran expended its nuclear operations, " Stephen Schwartz of the Monterey Institute of International Studies told me.

Today, there is widespread consensus among policymakers and experts on both sides of the aisle on the need to refocus U.S. nuclear policy from the permanent maintenance of an immense nuclear arsenal with multiple missions to the reduction and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. It is based on a growing bipartisan consensus of former security and military officials. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn are the leading proponents of this shift, embodied in their series of Wall Street Journal editorials calling for "a world without nuclear weapons."

The four have garnered the support of a large majority of the still-living former U.S. secretaries of state, defense secretaries, and national security advisors, including James Baker, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Frank Carlucci, and Melvin Laird. "Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the most important characteristic of the nuclear problem is not the size of the arsenals," Carlucci and Perry wrote in a 2010 report, "but a fundamental change in the relative risks and benefits of their continuing existence."

Reflecting this consensus, the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review -- a congressionally mandated study on the purpose, structure, and size of the nuclear arsenal -- unequivocally concluded: "The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." James Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, reflected the Pentagon consensus with his Feb. 15 comment: "I do believe that there are steps that we can take to further strengthen our deterrence posture and assurance of allies, and … I believe we can do so with lower numbers."

How low? Recommendations for right-sizing the arsenal vary. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proposed cutting back to 1,220 deployed strategic warheads. The Cato Institute argues that 500 warheads are sufficient. A 2010 study by Air Force analysts concluded that "America's nuclear security can rest easily on a relatively small number of counterforce and countervalue weapons totaling just over 300."

Even here, it is difficult to image a military mission that would require the United States to use 300 hydrogen bombs, each 10 to 80 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. During all the years when the United States and the Soviet Union built up their arsenals to tens of thousands of weapons and then brought them down to thousands, China has felt secure with a deterrent force of just dozens. Analysts are now looking at this minimum deterrent strategy to see whether it indeed reflects military needs more accurately than the current U.S. and Russian postures.

As former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote 43 years ago in Foreign Affairs:

[A] decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one's own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.

Bundy's views did not prevail then, but the options that the Pentagon and the White House national security staff are reportedly preparing for the president's consideration are well within the mainstream of today's strategic thinking. It is those defending the existing nuclear complex and arguing for its expansion who occupy fringe.

Sound strategy is about matching resources to threats. The debate under way at the Pentagon, State Department, and White House could result in a smarter nuclear strategy, one that keeps us safe and is cost-effective too. Cutting the nuclear force to even 1,000 weapons would save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be devoted to the equipment that U.S. troops need to fight terrorists, not Soviets. It's about time we buried yesterday's threats and focused on those of the here and now.

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