Dom Joly: No one's sneering at the people of Homs now

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The Independent Online

Two stories dominated the news agenda last week – Harry Bloody Redknapp and Homs. I loathe football at the best of times, but the story of whether Redknapp might be considered as England manager when he's finished with Tottenham Hotspur is about as interesting as one of Piers Morgan's Tweets.

Homs, and the spiralling violence in Syria really matters, however. I have been to Homs a couple of times. If I'm honest, it's a bit of a dump. Compared to the more glamorous Aleppo or Damascus, Homs has always been the poor cousin. Indeed, at school in Beirut, my Lebanese Maronite Christian friends would tell "Homsy" jokes, the politically incorrect Irish jokes that used to be promulgated in these fair isles.

I remember one, because it was so bad. "Why did the man from Homs take a car door into the desert with him?"

"So that he could open the window when it got hot."

Take that, Tim Vine, and stuff it in your pipe and smoke it. That is Levantine comedy. While we are on the subject... I have been leading a one-man campaign to correct newsreaders mispronouncing the name of the city. It is Homs pronounced like "Pomps", not "Homz" as most of them insist on saying. It is unbelievable listening to a man under mortar fire pleading for help from the outside world, and the presenter can't even pronounce the name of his burning city correctly.

Whatever else the people of Homs might achieve, they are definitely changing their image in the wider Levant and they must be praised for their efforts. I'm not sure however, how effective they will be. President Bashar al-Assad has the look of a man who was not destined to take over anything more challenging than a minor dental practice. He has no chin and a weak frame that looks like it might be lifted off the ground come the first desert kamsin.

The person who was supposed to take over from his wily and ruthless father was Bashar's brother Basil al-Assad, a playboy prince who had been groomed for the leadership from birth but was killed in a car crash on the way to the airport in Damascus in 1994. This left Syria with the uncharismatic second son as successor.

Ironically, his instincts probably are those of a cautious reformer but he was faced with having to deal with a ferociously powerful institutional bureaucracy and has had to tread fairly carefully.

This uprising however, has led to him doing the same that his father did to the city of Hama with its 17 beautiful wooden water wheels dating back to 1100. That city was hammered into submission in the early Eighties: up to 20,000 people were killed and the outside world did nothing.

History now seems to be repeating itself. The die is cast for Bashar, and he has no choice but to fight to the finish; for the moment, he doesn't look like losing. The major cities of Aleppo and Damascus have pretty much stayed on side. The Christian, Druze and Alawite minorities, as well as middle-class Sunnis, prefer the idea of an authoritative, strong leader in comparison to the unknown void of sectarian strife should there be a full civil war.

I loathe Assad and all he stands for, but I'm also fearful of what might come should he be deposed. There are very few examples of strong men being replaced by successful democracies in the Middle East – Levantine politics are a tricky business.