Syria's Alawite Refuge

A Letter From Tartus

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Syrian port city of Tartus buzzed in the summer heat. Car showrooms displayed lines of new vehicles. Markets full of clothes, furniture, and household knicknacks bustled with customers. Clouds of nargileh smoke wafted from hookah pipes at the see-and-be-seen restaurants lining sandy Mediterranean beaches. Yachts bobbed indifferently in the port.

This Middle Eastern haven, however, lies just 60 miles west of Homs, the battle-broken city that is the center of gravity in the civil war that has shattered Syria, killing more than 16,000 people and displacing a quarter of a million more. Tartus, though, has become a refuge for the country's minority Alawi Shiite population. "As an Alawi, I don't really care about Bashar al-Assad," says 30-year-old Majed, referring to Syria's president, who is also Alawi. "The only thing that concerns me is security." 

Eight months ago, after losing his job and fearing for his safety, Majed escaped Homs. (Like others interviewed for this article, Majed chose to keep his last name private for security reasons.) In Tartus, he has found work as a telecommunications salesman. "Everyone thinks we defend the regime and the authorities, but the opposition has given us no choice but to flee to the coast," he says. "It's like I'm not even in the Middle East here, I feel so secure."

Similar sentiments are easy to find in Tartus. Fayez, a 35-year-old import-export business owner, also abandoned Homs last year after opposition fighters operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army kidnapped his cousins and wrote "Get out" on the door of his home. "Revolutionaries," Fayez describes them sarcastically, holding up his fingers in bitter air quotes. "Tartus is my new home. I don't ever intend to leave," he says. "In the end, Bashar al-Assad will go and our children will be left, and we have to defend their future here."

Eighteen months of fighting have hardened both men's sectarian resolve. In their view, Alawites are under attack by a Sunni majority, which uses its religious identity as an organizing principle for mobilizing the militias operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella. In turn, the coastal Sahel region is the only safe haven, and this stretch of land -- encompassing the port cities of Latakia, Baniyas, Jableh, and Tartus, and the mountains separating them from the rest of Syria's plains -- must be protected against Sunni encroachment at all costs.

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