Business Owners in Old Homs Forced to Open Shop or Face Confiscation

Shopkeepers in the historic Al-Naoureh Souq of Homs have been warned  to rehabilitate their damaged shops within a period of 60 days, according to a statement made by Homs City Council member Rasmi Al-Sibai in early February.

Al-Sibai, who sits on the council’s “committee for activating historic souks”, did not disclose what would happen once the deadline passed, though his statement recalled similar warnings in November 2020 by the Homs governor , who  threatened to confiscate shops that failed to reopen.

In official statements published by pro-government websites, Al-Sibai said that of the 504 shops in Al-Naoureh Souq, 134 had been rehabilitated, with work ongoing on 40 other shops. He added that the city council had completed building essential services for the souq, including lighting, sidewalks and water and electrical networks.

The historic souqs of Homs form the city’s main commercial centre. There are 890 shops spread across 13 distinct souqs, each distinguished by its main trade, such as textiles, perfumes, and copper. The most famous souq is Al-Naoureh. However, the souqs have been closed since 2012, when the area became a frontline between the regime and opposition forces stationed in Old Homs. The fighting caused partial destruction to the souqs, which remained closed even after opposition fighters were driven out of Homs in late 2014. Afterwards, fires of unknown cause broke out across most of the historic souks, accompanied by looting campaigns that also extended into other areas of Old Homs that were by then empty of residents. Looters dismantled everything from plumbing, electrical lines and phone lines that could be reused elsewhere.

A UN Development Program-sponsored plan has been in place since 2016 to rehabilitate Homs’ historic souqs. However, the Homs City Council waited until 2020 to begin serious work removing rubble and repairing the souqs and some shops. This work has not yet encouraged store owners to reopen their shops and resume business, due to the massive losses they have faced over the course of the war, according to a correspondent forThe Syria Report.

Homs governor Bassam Barsik met in November 2020 with members of the Homs Chamber of Commerce, calling on all store owners in the city’s commercial centre to return to their shops within a period of two months. Barsik then warned that the municipality would “lay its hands” on all shops that remained closed, restore them, and offer them up for investment. “We will keep the proceeds from these investment offerings until the [absent] business owner returns to the country”, Barsik said.

Barsik’s statement raised concerns among store owners and those who are tenants under old rental contracts. It was not clear exactly what he meant when he said the municipality would “lay its hands” on the shops, how this process would unfold, and the process for subsequent investment in restored shops.

Immediately after the governor’s statement, the Homs City Council distributed warnings dated November 15, 2020, and marked with the number 566, pasting the documents to the doors of closed shops and on street corners in Al-Naoureh. According to a picture of one of the posters obtained by The Syria Report, they read: “Dear owners of shops in Al-Naoureh Souq, you are required to prepare your stores and reinvest them within a period of two months starting from this date, under penalty of legal measures taken against you in accordance with the laws and regulations in place”. The warnings bore the signature of the mayor of Homs, and the city council’s official seal.

However, the governor’s threats of property seizure were not implemented after the two-month deadline passed, though some store owners did begin to restore and reopen their businesses in early 2021. Business owners in Al-Naoureh Souq who spoke with The Syria Report said that though some shops had reopened, there was no commercial activity due to low purchasing power and the depreciation of the Syrian pound. One merchant added: “We are pretending to resume commercial activity, fearing that our shops could be seized”.

Source: The Syria Report