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To Syria's loyalist stronghold of Tartus, victory seems imminent

The bustling coastal city, itself untouched by war, sends its mostly Alawite and Christian sons to battle for Assad and honors those slain with colorful posters.

June 15, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Samer Ahmed scans the colorful posters of "martyrs wall," the sons of Tartus who have been killed fighting for the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Samer Ahmed scans the colorful posters of "martyrs wall," the… (Nabih Bulos, For The Times )

TARTUS, Syria — War may be ravaging much of Syria, but there is no sign of conflict on bustling streets here, where diners wearing designer sunglasses order freshly caught fish at seaside cafes and gaze out on a palm-fringed expanse resembling a slightly tattered version of southern France or the Greek isles.

Absent are the rows of pulverized apartment blocks that mark parts of battleground cities like Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. But that doesn't mean this ancient port — once home to Phoenicians, Romans and Crusaders — hasn't suffered its share of losses.

Colorful posters displayed in street-side shrines and a "martyrs wall" near a busy bus stop commemorate the area's sons who have been killed fighting for the government of President Bashar Assad. More than 2,500 residents, most of them soldiers, have been killed in the two-year civil war, officials say.

"It's important to show that we appreciate their sacrifice," said Samer Ahmed, 29, an auto mechanic, closely scrutinizing the stylized images of the war dead for the faces of friends. "We all believe in the cause."

While many in the opposition regard the Assad government as a murderous clique intent on keeping power at all costs, this loyalist stronghold has long dispatched its native sons, including many from minority Alawite and Christian communities, to serve in Assad's military and security services.

As the government lost territory during the war, the Mediterranean coast was often mentioned as a fallback zone, and Tartus as the capital of a prospective mini-state dominated by Assad's Alawite religious sect. A Soviet-era Russian naval logistics base lies off the coast, representing the reassuring presence of a powerful ally.

The United States, which has long joined its allies in demanding that Assad step down, increased the pressure Thursday. The White House announced that it had concluded that Syria used chemical weapons in the fighting, and officials said the U.S. would start arming some rebel groups.

But officials here, including Gov. Nizar Moussa, a staunch Assad loyalist, scoff at the notion that anything but victory is imminent, a sense bolstered by recent advances against rebel forces.

"We are vanquishing and killing all the terrorists," he said, inviting visitors to sit in luxurious inlaid armchairs and share glasses of tea in his spacious office. "America should be thankful. These are the dregs of society; we are fighting people from the likes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to a pair of notorious U.S. lockups for terrorism suspects, one in Cuba and other in Iraq.

Support for the president appears unyielding here, even among the Sunni business elite that has long dominated commerce.

Sunni Muslims, the majority in Syria, are spearheading the revolt against Assad. In May, opposition activists accused pro-government forces of massacring more than 100 Sunni civilians in and around the refinery town of Baniyas, a half-hour drive to the north. The government said only that the army clashed with "terrorists," its standard term for armed rebels.

Most of the tens of thousands who have escaped to the coast from Syria's war zones are Sunnis, as well. In the tense atmosphere of today's Syria, everyone approached here seemed keen to express allegiance to the government, especially to a foreign journalist accompanied by a government minder.

"We should export the death to Obama that he sends to us," said an elderly matriarch from neighboring Homs province, with her family on a rocky outcrop near the corniche on a recent afternoon. She asked to be identified only by a nickname, Um Mohammed.

The highway west from Homs to the coast offers a distant glimpse of the celebrated Crac des Chevaliers, a mountaintop Crusader citadel that is now reportedly a rebel fortress. But the road itself was clear as the route ascended the so-called Alawite mountains and dropped down to the sea. The many checkpoints reflect the government's determination to maintain control of the strategic corridor from Damascus, the capital, to the coast.

In Tartus, there is no open talk of sectarianism, just a seemingly unshakable loyalty to a government viewed by many as a bulwark against a rebel onslaught heralding chaos and religious fanaticism.

"Why is America, the home of progressive secular democracy, on the side of people who want to send this country back to the 7th century?" asked Gov. Moussa.

Outside the governor's plush offices, black-clad women hovered in the corridor, seeking a word for their grievous plights. They are the war widows of Tartus.

"My husband was first kidnapped, then they executed him," said Huda Shahoud, an Alawite mother of five, recalling the death of Adil Fillara, 36, in the northern province of Idlib, where he was serving in the military.

Human rights groups have reported that Alawite soldiers often face execution when captured by Sunni insurgents.

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