In A Pro-Assad Stronghold, Security Comes At A Heavy Price
Photos: Alice Fordham/NPR
You can tell the coastal city of Tartus is on the side of the Syrian government because everything here is intact.
Little waves lap at rocks on a wide, quiet seafront dotted with cafes; boats ferry people back and forth to a nearby island. There are parks with manicured hibiscus shrubs covered in pale pink blossoms, and busy markets.
It stands in vivid contrast to places where protests against Assad morphed into an armed uprising, and in the subsequent fighting, great swaths of ancient cities were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Many were civilians in opposition-held areas, targeted by the forces of President Bashar Assad and his allies, in brutal tactics which have been widely condemned by Western powers and the United Nations.
But just because civilians in Tartus go about their lives in safety doesn't mean they are unaffected by the war. Syrians staunchly loyal to Assad have also paid a heavy price.
Pasted up on walls are posters commemorating men who have died fighting for Assad. They are young and old, always in uniform, usually carrying a weapon. The posters include images of Assad or his father, Hafez Assad, floating in the background, along with the Syrian flag.
Some posters are faded, with new ones, bright and clear, next to them: a reminder the war is nearly six years old. The city is dotted with print shops. Lammah Jadeed runs one of them.
"Everything has changed," he says, "because of the war."
He used to make things like signs for cafes. Now most of his work is producing these posters of dead men. One is propped up in his print shop, the young man's eyes gazing into the middle distance amid rolls of paper and ink cartridges. Another dries out on the floor.
"At the beginning of the crisis, we used to publish between 10 and 17 posters every day," Jadeed says. "At the beginning, I felt like I had lost one of my family." He used to cry, watching the posters rolling off the printers.
I ask if most families in Tartus have someone in the military.
"I think yes," he says, guessing 90 percent. "Tartus — because it's the Mother of the Martyrs."
A lot of people here use that grim nickname. Officials in Tartus say proportional to population, more men from Tartus have died fighting for Assad than from any other city.
Some historical context can help explain why. Most people here are from the Alawite Muslim sect, like Assad. For centuries, Alawites have been an embattled minority in Syria.
Bassam Watfa, an archaeologist and expert on the history of the coastal region, explains that around the time of the beginning of Ottoman rule, in the 1500s, most Alawites were living in Aleppo. But Ottoman Sultan Selim I attacked them — a massacre remembered to this day.
"Sultan Selim exerted pressure on the Alawites and fought them, so those people left to the coastal mountains," says Watfa — to places like Tartus.
During centuries of Ottoman rule, Alawites scratched out a living in harsh mountain conditions, and had to pay a tax because they were not considered Muslims. This has not been forgotten.
"This hatred still exists to this day," says Watfa. Many Alawites are still hostile to modern Turkey. And, in today's war, Turkey sides with Syrian rebels.
Although conditions improved somewhat for Alawites under French control of Syria in the first half of the 20th century, they continued to feel marginalized.
Then, in the 1940s, a new political party was formed — the Baath Party, with leaders drawn from various strands of Syrian society. One man who joined the party and became an Air Force officer, Hafez Assad, played a key role in helping to bring the party to power in a 1970 coup. Then he ruled as president for three decades until his death in 2000.
Finally, the Alawite minority felt incorporated into Syria.
"The situation improved greatly," says Watfa. "Roads were made, schools were opened and all basic services came to this area."
A man who joins us for the interview, whom I presume is a security officer, discourages Watfa from saying anything about today's war. The man, like others here, is keen to stress that the mentality in Tartus is not sectarian. They point out that the city has taken in hundreds of thousands of people from all over Syria, people displaced by the war.
Watfa also says many people here join the army not just to protect the government, but because poverty is still high in comparison with Syria's larger cities.
But certainly, many here are keen to say that Tartus will fight to the last man or woman.
One mother and father, who lost two sons to fighting in the space of four months earlier this year, welcome us into their sparse, immaculate living room, where the photographs of their sons take pride of place. They are not alone in their agony.
"Our neighbor over here, our neighbor over there," says the father, Hussein al-Ibrahim, gesticulating. He indicates a building down the street, another one, the apartment downstairs. "All of them have a martyr," he says. "Every house."
And yet, he adds, the numbers of dead and injured here are dwindling, for which he thanks Assad's allies — which include Russia and Iran.
Syria's war could be lurching painfully toward a close. Assad's forces are now battling toward victory in the city of Aleppo, and negotiating surrenders with rebels they've besieged outside Damascus, the capital.
The end can't come soon enough for the people in Tartus. Even in this bastion of Assad support, it is reported sometimes people hold demonstrations at military funerals, protesting the numbers of men they've had to sacrifice.
I don't know if that's true: my request to attend a funeral was denied.