By an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES in SYRIA and NEIL MacFARQUHAR Published: December 22, 2012
TARTUS, Syria — Loyalists who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad are flocking to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, creating an overflowing boomtown far removed from the tangled, scorched rubble that now mars most Syrian cities.
The New York Times
The port city of Tartus is sheltered by a mountain range.
There are no shellings or air raids to interrupt the daily calm. Families pack the cafes lining the town’s seaside corniche, usually abandoned in December to the salty winter winds. The real estate market is brisk. A small Russian naval base provides at least the impression that salvation, if needed, is near.
Many of the new residents are members of the Alawite minority, the same Shiite Muslim sect to which Mr. Assad belongs. The latest influx is fleeing from Damascus, people who have decided that summer villas, however chilly, are preferable to the looming battle for the capital.
“Going to Tartus is like going to a different country,” said a Syrian journalist who recently met residents here. “It feels totally unaffected and safe. The attitude is, ‘We are enjoying our lives while our army is fighting overseas.’ ”
Should Damascus fall to the opposition, Tartus could become the heart of an attempt to create a different country. Some expect Mr. Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing a rump Alawite state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital.
There have been various signs of preparations.
This month, the governor of Tartus Province announced that experts were studying how to develop a tiny local airfield, now used mostly by crop-dusters, into a full-fledged civilian airport “to boost transportation, business, travel and tourism,” as the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported. The announcement coincided with the first attacks on the airport in Damascus, forcing it to close temporarily to international traffic.
More important, security forces are continuously tightening an extensive ring of checkpoints around the potential borders of an Alawite canton. The mountain heartland of the Alawites rises steeply to the east of Tartus, separating it from much of Syria. Across the mountains, the Orontes River creates a rough line separating Alawite territory from central Syria. Rebel military commanders from adjoining Hama Province said government soldiers vigorously maintain checkpoints on routes leading up into the mountains.
“If we bomb a checkpoint, it is back in place sometimes within hours,” said Basil al-Hamwi, a rebel fighter, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of opposition military commanders in Turkey. “Once, in Hama Province, we destroyed five in one day and they were all back the next day. This area is even more important for them than Damascus.”
Mr. Hamwi and other rebel leaders said there were about 40 government checkpoints along more than 60 miles in Homs and Hama Provinces alone. Many Alawite commanders of Mr. Assad’s army have sent their families to their home villages, so they are particularly aggressive in protecting the area, said Hassan M. al-Saloom, a rebel battalion commander. They have formed committees to guard the outskirts of their villages, he said, and often negotiate local truces.
“Nobody goes inside, and they don’t come out,” he said.
There are widespread suspicions within the opposition that the military is shipping weapons into the Alawite hinterland, or has already positioned them. “The mountains and the coast make it hard to raid,” Mr. Saloom said.
Castles left by the Crusaders dot the coastal range, a testament to its strategic value.
If Mr. Assad fled to Tartus, he could seek protection from the Russian naval base here, or flee aboard a Russian vessel. Russia announced Tuesday that it was sending a small flotilla toward Tartus, possibly to evacuate its citizens who live in Syria. But Tartus residents said that the Russian families from the naval base had already left, while the officers do not leave the base, which is little more than an enclosure near the civilian port.
Opposition military commanders vow to block any attempt to create an Alawite state.
“We want to prevent the regime from leaving Damascus at all, to ensure that when Damascus falls, the regime falls, too,” said a senior rebel military commander from Homs, who asked not to be named for security reasons. At a recent meeting of opposition military commanders in southern Turkey, none showed up from the meager forces around Tartus.
The war has only augmented the reputation of people from Tartus for living the indolent life of a relaxed resort. Unlike much of Syria, the town still has bread, diesel fuel and electricity, with minimal power cuts. The local cinema club maintains a robust schedule and recently screened both “Finding Nemo” and “Cinema Paradiso.”
The city experienced a few small antigovernment demonstrations after the revolution first started in March 2011, but none since.
Abu Mohamed, 35, a real estate agent here, has tracked the fighting elsewhere in Syria by the license plates showing up outside his office. First they were from Homs, then Deir al-Zour, then Aleppo and now Damascus.
He gets 20 to 30 calls a day, he said, from people looking for houses to buy or rent.
“Most of them have never been here before, but they seem to be rich or at least middle class because they have nice cars,” he said. Recently, he said, more black government limousines have appeared, and middlemen have materialized, telling him that they are looking for big houses for some unidentified “important and influential figure who wants it for his family.”
Ahmed Jibril, a Palestinian commander still loyal to Mr. Assad, fled with his son to Tartus from Damascus after rebels there gained the upper hand in the Palestinian neighborhood of Yarmouk, activists said.
“Usually at this time of year, the city is empty,” said Abu Mohammed, using a nickname to avoid alienating any clients. “But now it is the opposite. All the hotels, motels, small sea cottages, anything furnished is full.”
Precise numbers are difficult to gauge. Azzam Dayoub, the head of the political office for the underground revolutionary council of Tartus, said there were at least 230,000 war refugees in the city. Others said the population of the entire province, once around 1.2 million, was now closer to two million. Most are Alawites, including countless government employees who have returned to their home province. But many are Sunnis, Christians or others close to the government who no longer felt safe elsewhere.
Mr. Dayoub said Alawites in the town barred other minorities and members of Syria’s Sunni majority from entering their neighborhoods, and the two sides no longer frequent each other’s stores. The Sunni population has been collecting weapons to fight any future attempt to drive them out, he said.
The large presence of non-Alawites along the coast prompted many residents to suggest that building an Alawite state would be impossible. Latakia, for example, a larger coastal city to the north with an international airport, would seem a more natural choice for a capital, but it is considered less safe for its large Alawite population because of repeated clashes there.
There are few public conversations in Tartus about the crisis enveloping Syria, several residents said. “No one on either side discusses their feelings openly,” said a 29-year-old woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the tensions there. “They want to keep things calm because both sides are scared.”
Privately, some Alawites dismiss the chances of having their own state. Abu Haidar, 55, the owner of a small import and export business in Tartus, said dreams were one thing, but reality was something else. “What do we have in Tartus Province that would aid us to stand alone as a state?” he asked. “We have neither the infrastructure, nor the resources. It is basically lemon and olive orchards along with a small city with simple services.”
But until the day of reckoning arrives, Tartus seems bent on blocking out the war raging over the horizon.
“The people who came to Tartus are looking to live their lives, not to sit and remember what happened to their brothers and other relatives in their hometowns,” Abu Mohamed said. Given the lavish wedding parties here, the mobbed restaurants and the buzz of daily activity, he said, “Sometimes, when I drive around the streets and squares of Tartus, I forget what is happening in Syria.”
An employee of The New York Times reported from Tartus, and Neil MacFarquhar from Antakya, Turkey. Hania Mourtada contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, and Hala Droubi from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.