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Parallels

A City Of Assad Supporters In War-Ravaged Syria

Originally published on Sun June 2, 2013 1:33 pm

Many people in Syria are accustomed to the sound of daily gunfire. It is normal in battle-scarred cities like Damascus or Qusair.

But along the beaches and in the cafes of Tartous, an area that is a center of support for the embattled President Bashar Assad, the sounds are a bit more peaceful.

Near the water's edge of the Mediterranean, tables, chairs and umbrellas sit upon huge stones. At one of these tables sits a brother and sister on vacation.

The brother, a 21-year-old Syrian soldier who didn't want to give his name, is given a few days off every few weeks. He doesn't talk about his duties, but says he has been under fire. Going from combat to the beach is a bit strange, he says.

"Of course, I think about it," he says, "and it's hard to ignore that I could have been killed. But I believe in what I'm doing."

His sister is a law student, though her studies have been delayed because her university is in the embattled city of Homs. Their father is a real estate developer. She says one thing Americans don't understand about Syria is the love and respect they have for the president and their country.

Refuge From Conflict

Many, though not all, of Syria's elites have stayed loyal to the Assad regime, under which they prospered. And many people now rely on this Assad stronghold for more than vacation; many are displaced and looking for work as well.

Around 300,000 Syrians have fled to the Tartous area. Some live in relatives' apartments, in converted schools and some stay in a government office building.

At a main route into the center city, the newcomers see a steadily expanding row of high-rise buildings. Even as the destruction of many Syrian cities continues, construction continues in Tartous.

A military checkpoint nearby stops people entering the city for as many as 40 minutes at a time to check credentials or search their cars. Above the checkpoint hangs a poster of Assad.

The intensity of the search betrays something of the authorities' tension about preserving this stronghold. It's a strategically important spot, as Russia, one of Syria's few allies, maintains a naval base there. It's also politically important because the whole Syrian coastline remains supportive of Assad.

Nizar Mahmood, a provincial official coordinating aid to refugees, say there's a reason for that.

"The rebels have a hard time finding support here," Mahmood says, "[because] the coastal area has a higher proportion of educated people than other areas ... making them less likely to be deceived into accepting foreign money."

Assad supporters here regularly blame outsiders for fueling the rebellion. They blame "the media," "the international media" or in some cases "the Jewish media" for creating the impression the rebels have legitimate grievances.

A Non-Sectarian Issue

There may, however, be a different reason Tartous remains quiet. The region is home to a heavy concentration of Muslims from the Alawite sect, the minority group to which Assad belongs.

Sheik Ahmad Bilal, an Alawite religious leader, is a traditional adviser to the community on religious matters, just as his ancestors were. He says he worries about what would happen if the Assad regime should lose. There are fears of a bloodbath because many believe the rebels will open the borders to terrorists.

Alawites were persecuted in generations past, but not recently. Bilal says Assad is not just a protector of Alawites, but of Syrians of all sects. He's doing this, he says, by improving the economy and spreading benefits, for example.

Bilal rejects the idea of sectarian conflict, and points out that even in Tartous, Sunni Muslims, not Alawites, are believed to be in the majority. He dismisses the widespread belief that Alawites enjoy special privileges.

The sheik says he was saddened when he heard of the recent massacre of Sunnis in a village in the region, and that he stayed home and mourned for three days. He insists, however, that terrorists were found in the village and brought destruction on it.

Bilal has reason to reject thinking of this war as a sectarian fight, and that's partly because up to now it hasn't been. Political and business insiders of many sects have benefited under the Assad regime and still support him.

If Syria's civil conflict truly did become a full-blown sectarian war, the Alawites would immediately be in danger of losing. There simply aren't enough of them.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Many people in Syria have become accustomed to this sound:

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MARTIN: Daily gunfire is not unusual in battle-scarred cities like Damascus or Qusair. Steve Inskeep, of NPR's MORNING EDITION, has spent the last week traveling through parts of Syria that have been ravaged by civil war. He visited a place noted for an entirely different kind of sound. Here's what you hear in Tartous, a city on the Mediterranean coast and a center of support for the embattled President Bashar al-Assad.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So they've placed huge stones along the edge of the Mediterranean. We're stepping from one to the next. And they have placed plastic tables and chairs and umbrellas on the stones, right by the water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

INSKEEP: Beneath one of the umbrellas, we met a brother and sister on vacation. The brother was a 22-year-old, Syrian soldier.

So every few weeks they give you a few days off and you come here to Tartous?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Yes.

INSKEEP: Like many Syrians we met, the brother did not want to give his name. He also did not want to talk in detail about his duties, though he said he has been under fire.

That must be even stranger to go from being in combat to being on the beach.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Of course I think about it, he said, and it's hard to ignore that I could have been killed. But I believe in what I'm doing.

His sister gestured with a hand that had a ring in the shape of a butterfly. She's a law student, though her studies have been delayed since her university is in the embattled city of Homs.

Is there something that you think Americans do not understand about Syria?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The love and respect we have for our president and our country, she said.

The brother and sister said their father is a real estate developer. Many - though not all - of Syria's elites have stayed loyal to the Assad regime under which they prospered.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

INSKEEP: And many people now rely on this Assad stronghold for more than vacation. Cafes and restaurants face the beach at Tartous, like this place where two sisters share a vegetable pizza.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: We're displaced people, one says. They came from the devastated city of Aleppo. One was a teacher, whose school is now on the rebel side of the battle lines. Authorities here told us that around 300,000 Syrians have fled to the Tartous area. Some live in relatives' apartments. Some live in converted schools. Some stay in a government office building where their kids play soccer in the courtyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

INSKEEP: At a main route into the center city, the newcomers see a steadily expanding row of high-rise buildings. Even as the destruction of many Syrian cities continues, construction continues here in Tartous. We're looking at a couple of 10- or 12-story buildings that are about half-constructed, and some work is going on even today. These are intended to be apartments for young people.

The newcomers may have plenty of time to study those buildings. A military checkpoint nearby stops people entering the center city for as many as 40 minutes at a time, to check credentials or search their cars. Above the checkpoint hangs a poster of President Bashar al-Assad.

The intensity of the search betrays something of the authorities' tension about preserving this stronghold. It's a strategically important spot; Russia, one of Syria's few allies, maintains a naval base there. It's also politically important because the Syrian coastline is believed to remain largely supportive of President Assad. Nizar Mahmood, a provincial official coordinating aid to refugees, told us he believes there is a reason for that.

NIZAR MAHMOOD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The rebels have a hard time finding support here, he contends. He says the coastal areas of city have a higher proportion of educated people than other areas, making them less likely to be deceived into accepting foreign money.

Assad supporters here regularly blame outsiders for fueling the rebellion. They blame the media, the international media or in some cases, quote, "the Jewish media" for creating the impression that the rebels have legitimate grievances.

There may be different reason Tartous remains quiet. The region is home to a heavy concentration of Muslims from the Alawite sect, the minority group to which President Assad belongs. To better understand what Alawites are thinking, we met an Alawite religious leader who worked prayer beads as he spoke.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEADS JANGLING)

INSKEEP: Sheikh Ahmad Bilal is a traditional adviser to the community on religious matters, just as his ancestors were. Switching between English and Arabic, he said he worried about what would happen if the Assad regime should lose.

SHEIKH AHMAD BILAL: Many persons in Syria have fears of bloodbaths in Syria. Because why? Because - (foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Bloodbaths because the rebels will open the borders to terrorists, he said. Alawites were persecuted in generations past. But not recently.

Do you view President Assad as your protector?

BILAL: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Not me in particular, the sheikh insisted. He's protecting all Syrians of all sects; for example, by improving the economy.

BILAL: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Spreading benefits like that computer, over on that chair.

Again and again - over coffee, apples and peaches - the sheikh rejected talk of sectarian conflict. He points out that even here, Sunni Muslims, not Alawites, are believed to be in the majority. He dismissed the widespread belief that Alawites enjoy special privileges. And when we asked about a recent massacre of Sunnis in a village in this region, the sheikh said: That saddened me so much that I stayed at home to mourn for three days.

BILAL: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: But, he insisted, terrorists were found in the village and brought destruction on it. The sheikh has reason to reject thinking of this war as a sectarian fight. Partly, that's because up to now, it hasn't been. Political and business insiders of many sects have benefited under the Assad regime. Partly, it's because if Syria's civil conflict truly did become a full-blown, sectarian war, the small Alawite sect would immediately be in danger of losing. There just aren't enough of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That's NPR's Steve Inskeep, reporting from government-controlled Tartous, Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.