Whether in Syrian or international media, Tartus is often presented as an island of calm in the ongoing Syrian crisis. The typical response of a Tartus resident to a non-resident interlocutor inquiring about the local situation is Hon ma fi shi, which translates from the Arabic as “there is nothing going on here.” Syrian official media in particular likes to emphasize that Tartus’s inhabitants are safe, free, and living without problems.1 Tartus has always been a relatively quiet city, lacking the commercial and cultural life of such cities as Damascus and Aleppo, and even Latakia. Market areas, including the Suq Mshabki, have always closed early in the evening. In addition to being a safe haven, the city is officially being portrayed as the dynamic hub of the country.

Syrian businesspeople continue to invest in Tartus, and some private sector companies have relocated there. Tartus has also become a city of refuge, as many newcomers and displaced people have settled in its environs, at least temporarily, to escape conflict areas. A tension between the old and new images of Tartus raises a number of important questions: How much has the city evolved during the current crisis, and in what ways? Why is the image of a quiet and unified city important for the regime of President Bashar al-Asad and how should this be interpreted? What is particular about the outlook and attitude of residents of Tartus?

Kheder Khaddour
Kheder Khaddour is a nonresident scholar at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. His research centers on civil military relations and local identities in the Levant, with a focus on Syria.
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The city, inhabited mainly by ‘Alawis, is known to support the Asad regime, as evident from signs throughout the town. This is of interest because behind this apparent allegiance, the identification of Tartus with power is ambiguous. Indeed, it is not the city from which power primarily emanates; many more powerful figures in the regime come from Lattakia than Tartous. That said, demonstrations in support of the regime involving local civilian leaders and representatives of the governorate and the ruling Ba‘th Party are regularly held in Tartus, while they have almost disappeared from such embattled cities as Homs and even Damascus.

International media coverage, when it has existed, has tended to present Tartus as an integral part of an “Alawite-stan” in the making or a coastal province where the regime and its ‘Alawi supporters can retreat as a last resort in the conflict.2 ‘Alawis do indeed constitute the demographic majority in the coastal region, and are a small minority in the rest of the country. Yet tolerance of large numbers of Sunni businesses and displaced persons, as well as regional-based differences among ‘Alawis residing in the city suggest that the international media have falsely conjured “Alawite-stan.” The term distorts more than it reveals. It is not so much “Alawite-ness” that is celebrated and stands out in Tartus, but the population’s continued belief in the Syrian regime, along with its institutions and ideology of the “Syria of al-Asad” (Suria al-Asad) that has been constructed over more than forty years. Granted, this support is seen by many ‘Alawis as a concomitant and implicit condition guaranteeing their survival. Tartus is thus the model Syrian “government town,” comparable to a university-dominated “college town” or the “company towns” of the mid-twentieth century American steel and auto industries. It was conceived and built by the regime prior to the current conflict as a microcosm of the state itself.3 The city feels like a Syrian city from an earlier time, but even this anachronistic city cannot be entirely outside the current situation.

Tartus has not experienced fighting or attacks during the current conflict. Behind its image of a quiet, pro-regime city, however, lies a more complicated situation with social and spatial disconnects. Unwritten rules are common, as is suspicion—mainly of newcomers and displaced people. Relations between the latter groups and the city’s long-time inhabitants (Tartusis) are primarily a modus vivendi, punctuated by genuine moments of sharing. Rather than a novelty, however, this mélange of interests echoes the way the Syrian state and society have functioned for many years. Nevertheless, numerous changes have taken place in contemporary Tartus. Paramount among them is an increased affirmation of religion for purposes of group cohesion.

This study is based on interviews conducted during periodic trips to Tartus between early 2011 and the end of 2012. Given the sensitive nature of the research, names of interview subjects have been changed.

A Government Town

Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast, lies just to the north of Lebanon and has been receiving a significant number of displaced people since the end of 2011. At first, it was mainly people from nearby Homs and its hinterland—where heavy fighting erupted in mid-2011. More recently, displaced persons are coming from elsewhere—for instance, Aleppo. Included among them are members of the middle class, who rent apartments, and the less well off, who are hosted in government buildings and facilities such as schools.4

Tartus is a commercial center as well as a resort town. This is mainly due to the city’s location by the sea and its port. It consists of an urban core, a number of suburbs, including al-Shaykh Sa‘ad and Dwayr al-Shaykh Sa‘ad, and several areas dotted with beach houses (shalayhat, in Arabic). Many of the middle-class newcomers have settled along the beach. There are smaller cities surrounding Tartus, such as Safita, in the mountains to the east, but most residents of these places do not consider themselves Tartusis, although they are in the same governorate.

 

Almost as an advertisement, Syrian official media have been depicting Tartus as a glamorous city immune to the turmoil of the current crisis. For example, one television program shows yoga classes on a beach, an almost paradisiacal setting.5 In a different setting, state media interviews people complaining about the lack of work due to the crisis or sharing their thoughts about the current situation. The subjects discussed, however, always relate to daily life issues—not deeper, political matters.6 Tartus has thus become an important symbol in the communication strategy of the regime to show what the “Syria of Bashar al-Asad” could be if there were no crisis. The regime may be using this image of the city to demonstrate that the political system is actually working well, implying that there is no need for reform anywhere.

The image presented by the international media is strikingly different, seeing in the situation the government securing a safe haven for ‘Alawis on the coast—an “Alawite town.” On the surface, this interpretation appears plausible. Tartus is located in the coastal region, where ‘Alawis are most powerful and where it is often imagined that the regime could, in the worst case, retreat. Yet we would expect an “Alawite town” to be ruled by members of the sect, making political decisions for the collective good of the sect. This is, in fact, what has happened in Homs since violence escalated there—all important public institutions are controlled by ‘Alawis and have been moved into ‘Alawi neighborhoods of the city after the city center was destroyed. In Tartus, by contrast, government institutions remain in central areas and public discourse remains, as it was before 2011, about loyalty to the regime as representative of the nation, with no reference to sectarian belonging. The discourse of the governor of Tartus, Nizar Musa, has precisely this governmental quality. He frequently visits wounded soldiers in the hospital and attends seminars at cultural centers, praising sacrifices made for the good of the nation. These public appearances bear much similarity to the publicity events staged by governors throughout the country before 2011. The governor of Homs makes no such appearances, due both to the security situation in the province and the fact that the state no longer provides the services that are a pretense allowing him to speak for all Homsis.

Tartus is Sacrificing Itself for the Country: Youth in the Army and the City of Refuge

Though Tartus has not experienced an acute security crisis, the city is not beyond the reach of the ongoing conflict. Gas shortages and electricity cuts of more than eight hours are commonplace, and the city is surrounded by military checkpoints. The army has called up many young reservists from the city. Many inhabitants of Tartus point out that their sons signed up for service, unlike in other regions where they claim the residents have tried to avoid it. The widespread feeling among many Tartusis is that they are sacrificing their young for the homeland, not just for their city or an imagined, potential ‘Alawi state. Moreover, they feel that their young are the ones saving the country, unlike the young of other cities, whom they view as cowards.

This is Hani’s thinking. Like the majority of Tartus’ inhabitants, the government employs him. Whether as public servants or employees of the army or security apparatus, many residents are dependent on the regime for their economic survival.7 Almost thirty years old, Hani is employed in the Ministry of Education. Like most government employees, he has a second job in the private sector—in his case as a taxi driver. He shares his taxi with another man, who drives it during the day while Hani works at the ministry.

With many young men from Tartus being called to the army, Hani observed, “nowadays in Tartus, most of the young on the street are from Homs or Aleppo, not from Tartus.” Hani is a ‘Alawi and feels a sense of superiority vis-à-vis ‘Alawis from the interior (especially Homs and Hama), where they are a minority. Referring to events in Homs in early 2012, Hani declared to one of his fares, a ‘Alawi from Homs who had for now resettled in Tartus, “all the current problems in the country are because of you. From the beginning, you were not able to stop the terrorists. If you had acted right from the first day, everything would be finished by now.” Comparing Homs and Tartus, he continued, “if this had happened in Tartus, in one day everything would have been finished, because we are more patriotic here.” He concluded by asserting, “Tartus is paying the price for this now. We are opening our houses to newcomers, we are sending our sons to join the army.”

 

Allegiance to the regime can be seen on the surface in Tartus. But at the same time, many Tartusis do not identify entirely with ‘Alawis from Latakia—whom they see as rivals—nor ‘Alawis from the interior—whom they consider cowards. Some Tartusis also feel that they are having to make sacrifices by hosting Syrians displaced by the fighting. Indeed, like Hani’s client, many of the newcomers arrived after the security situation began to deteriorate in Homs at the end of 2011. Because of its location on the sea, Tartus has always attracted visitors from Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus, who would rent or buy chalets on the beach for the summer. Many laborers accompanied the chalet crowd to build the city, as the majority of inhabitants are involved in government rather than unskilled labor. Recently, it is the Homsi chalet owners, ‘Alawis as well as Sunnis, who have decided to settle there on a more permanent basis, or at least until the situation in other parts of the country improves. They are now being followed by residents from Aleppo, who are mostly Sunnis. The newcomers are thus of mixed backgrounds and origins.

Chalet rental has become a lucrative business for Tartusis. According to one employee of a real estate firm, average rents increased by thirty percent between mid-2011 and the beginning of 2013. When it comes to business, social, regional, and sectarian lines are fading. Or, more precisely, these lines are becoming cards to be played by Tartusi businessmen. For example, Fouad, an ‘Alawi from Homs in his early thirties, explained that when he decided to settle in Tartus at the end of 2011, he rented a basic chalet for three thousand Syrian pounds (forty US dollars) a month from a Tartusi owner. To entice him, the owner emphasized that he was making him a special offer because he is a ‘Alawi like himself. The owner even declared, “I never rent to Sunnis.” Fouad said that a month later, the owner changed his tune and rented a chalet to a Sunni family, telling Fouad, “as Syrians, we need to help each other, because we are all Syrians.”

Maintaining the Atmosphere of the City

Tartus has been tangibly affected by the crisis in Syria—among other things, it sends its sons to fight and receives many migrants. But great efforts continue to be made in many quarters to depict it as a safe haven and to guarantee that its reputation does not change. Anybody who can afford to live in the chalet area is welcome there, but the local residents and the government strive to ensure that newcomers do not change the city’s atmosphere. Because they are private spaces, the chalets can accommodate Syrians of any background. Yet the public spaces, buttressed by local customs and traditions and the state alike, remain unchanged. This environment perpetuates disconnections among different segments of the population while hiding them behind a public discourse that everyone is welcome—echoing the way the state and society functioned for many years before the uprising.

Umm Ramya, originally from Homs, has long owned a high-class chalet in Tartus where she would stay every summer. She moved there permanently in late 2011. She explains that soon after her arrival, the owners of chalets from Tartus, as well as the security services, began attempting to scare newcomers. She asserted, “they made us understand that we may own the chalet, but not the area.” She further noted, “they used to scare us ... Every day they would come with words of Bashar, Hafiz [al-Asad] or [Hizballah leader] Hassan Nasrallah on loudspeakers.” Umm Ramya wonders why the authorities feel the need for this “charade” (maskhara), explaining, “we knew very well from the beginning where we are,”—by which she meant that everybody who comes to Tartus knows that it is a pro-regime town which does not want any disturbances.

Most new arrivals in Tartus are well aware of this attitude but come nevertheless in search of refuge. One can thus interpret the authorities’ actions as aiming not merely to discourage dissent, but to maintain the atmosphere of the city in the face of the influx of newcomers. Indeed, the chalet population is well controlled, as practically anyone who goes to live there, whether an owner or renter, must provide his or her national identification card to the security services. In the center where they present their information, they are bombarded with nationalist songs, speeches, flags of Syria, and posters of the president to remind them of where they are.

The Tartus corniche, along the sea, also reflects this phenomenon. It is a place where people of diverse backgrounds gather, but their communion is codified. Modern, popular, and patriotic songs can be heard blaring from the cars and cafés along the street. In the business establishments, only national news channels and the pro-regime al-Mayadeen and al-Manar are seen on television screens. It is not possible to watch Al-Arabiya or Al Jazeera. Images of the president and of his brother Maher are ubiquitous. Of course, most people do not seem to notice such things anymore, as they have long become part of the scenery.

 

Murad, a Sunni originally from Tartus, owns a café along the corniche. He asserted, “people who are coming to Tartus should live as Tartusi people are living.” In other words, they can bring their luggage with them, but not their opinions. In his mind, the newcomers are like tourists. He explained that his family is conservative, or more accurately, neither radical nor liberal. He supports the army and secret services, to keep Tartus safe, as he feels that “people have brought their problems with them.” He offered, “[If] I see any group disturbing the city, I will help the security services.” He was proud to point out that in Tartus one can still see a fair number of motorcycles and expensive cars. He says that in most other places in the country, they have almost all disappeared, as people are afraid to show that they have money for fear of being kidnapped.

Large numbers of people stroll and lounge along the corniche, giving the appearance of free mingling. If one looks closer, however, it is easy to see that people tend to stay in certain groups. Some people bring tables and chairs out onto the sidewalk, along with water pipes (argile) to smoke and yerba matte to drink, while listening to loud music on their car stereo systems. Most such people are originally from Tartus, and it is rare to see people from out of town behaving in this way. A feeling that these people own the land and therefore set the tone is pervasive. Demonstrations in support of the regime regularly take place on the corniche. Some are small and improvised, while others are more significant and organized.

Moving Customs and Traditions to the Coast?

Hakim, who is in his early thirties and comes from nearby Qal‘at al-Husn, has completely absorbed the Syrian authorities’ message. He moved to a chalet in Tartus in early 2012 due to the troubles in his hometown. Hakim explained, “we want to continue our lives. We left our area as it was too dangerous to stay there.” He said that people are nice to him, and he has no problems with anyone, but he is careful. He knows that if he talks about politics or religion, he could create problems for himself, so he avoids doing so. Hakim further explained that for this reason, he does not strike up social relationships with people from elsewhere. Since he prefers not to make up false stories, he avoids initiating contact.

Hakim’s experience is an example of how, rather than encouraging mixing and new connections among people, the arrival of Syrians from elsewhere has resulted in disconnections among people in Tartus. It has also encouraged the newcomers to recreate in Tartus pre-existing networks from their places of origin. Indeed, Hakim chose to live in a chalet because one of his cousins was already living in that area. Furthermore, once situated in Tartus, he married a woman whom he did not previously know, but who came from his hometown and had also moved to a chalet. It would not be an overstatement to say that many people simply moved their town or village, along with its customs and traditions, to the chalet area. As Hakim’s case also interestingly points out, migrants do not necessary wall themselves off from the rest of Syria while living in Tartus. He commutes almost every day to Homs to continue working in a government real estate bank. Many communities separated before the uprising by physical space and limited social interaction are now concentrated into the space of Tartus and its environs, yet they continue to reproduce the social divisions between themselves.

A Miniaturized Syria Outside of Its Time?

The owner of a chain of cafés who recently opened a branch in Tartus noted that the city today resembles a Syrian city from the early 2000s in terms of economic opportunities and development, with the building of luxury hotels, restaurants, and malls. The same could be said of the city’s atmosphere and the way it is governed. In this respect, Tartus represents a miniaturized version of the Syria of Asad prior to the conflict. The analogy is not exact, however, because Tartus is not the city from which power flows. Furthermore, after the summer of 2012 and an explosion in Damascus that killed Asef Shawkat, President Asad’s brother-in-law, Tartus has few leaders in the government. The stance of Tartus in this context thus needs to be scrutinized more deeply. How is it that we are currently witnessing a reproduction of the regime, or the Syria of al-Asad in Tartus under these circumstances? Why are many Tartusis agreeing to play this game?

 

One answer, without a doubt, is that so many people from Tartus are employed by the government—mainly its civilian institutions—and are thus dependent on the state. Most people working in other sectors—for example, those in construction who “built” Tartus—are originally from elsewhere, such as Homs or Hama. This reinforces Tartusis’ feeling of dependence on the state. Another reason is that the ideology and practices developed from the 1970s onward by the late president Hafiz al-Asad, appear to still hold sway in the city. For example, the Ba‘th Party and its ideas of “resistance” remain effective in many ways and serve to mobilize people, including to publicly demonstrate. In one instance, demonstrations were organized by the syndicate of workers, which is linked to the Ba‘th, in solidarity with people killed in ‘Adra, near Damascus, in mid-December 2013. Even though many of the dead were ‘Alawis, the official slogan of the gathering was in support of the “workers” who died. Other demonstrations have been organized to thank Russia and China for their stance during the crisis and to show unwavering support through slogans like, “we are here to support you Syria.” The form and content of these demonstrations—gatherings organized by Party apparatuses to stand in solidarity with a given nation or social group—recall the stilted expressions of the supposedly popular will seen throughout Ba’th rule. The content of the present demonstrations exposes the political relationships underlying them. Recent demonstrations have not only thanked the foreign governments supporting the Syrian regime, but also expressed solidarity with the Turkish people struggling against their own regime—a stance repeatedly expressed by the Syrian government.8 Significantly, major demonstrations of this nature, bringing masses of celebrating Syrians into major city squares, cannot be observed outside of Tartus and Swayda at present.

A Pre- or Post-Crisis City?

The image and atmosphere projected of Tartus is not only to portray it as untouched by the crisis, but also as a pre- or possibly post-crisis locale. As noted, the current situation in Tartus has enticed numerous Syrian businesses to relocate or open establishments there. Tartus is thus also presented as the place where well-off people go to settle and invest. This is only true to an extent, as most of the rich who decided to leave their homes went to neighboring countries or farther abroad. Nevertheless, some entrepreneurs have chosen Tartus, although they could have relocated to other “safe” areas of the country, such as Suwayda. Most investments by newcomers, however, are somewhat limited, geared primarily toward service and production for the local market. Export-oriented companies are rare, their owners preferring instead to move abroad.

Muhannad is one example of an entrepreneurial newcomer. He arrived from Homs, and opened—with an associate—a dry cleaning business in Tartus at the end of 2011. Their feeling at that time was that the crisis would end soon, but in the meantime, Tartus represented an atmosphere of opportunity. Numerous other small businesses joined theirs. Muhannad and his partner invested about 100,000 US dollars and entered into deals with hotels and cafés. However, their financial hopes never materialized and the partner, a dual national who could easily travel, sold his share in the business and left after less than a year. We understand from Mazen’s experience that, however much effort the state pours into making Tartus a vibrant government town, it has not and cannot become an economic hub divorced entirely from its surroundings.

In addition to debunking the myth of Tartusi economic dynamism, a closer look at Muhannad’s dry cleaning business unmasks the sometimes-difficult relationships among people within the context of the ongoing crisis. Both owners of the dry cleaning business were ‘Alawis who moved from Homs. The employees they hired were of varied backgrounds. Muhannad said that because of the war, he had become paranoid. He hired a Sunni who sometimes works late at night, and during those times Mazen sometimes fears for his life—thinking his employee might kill him simply because he is an ‘Alawi. At the same time, however, he says the employee is a “nice guy” and a really good worker. Their professional relationship works well, so Muhannad has no reason to fire him.

 

Muhannad revealed that he is generally uncomfortable because the employee, who comes from Idlib, never speaks about politics or religion. Reflecting on the situation, Muhannad said that at the same time, he understands that it is not possible for his employee to speak about such sensitive subjects at his workplace. What worries him even more, however, is that his employee always responds to him with the rhetoric of the regime. For example, he refers to the rebels only as “terrorists.” For this reason, Muhannad fears the employee is playing a “double game.” He also knows, however, that what he feels are only suspicions. Muhannad’s account demonstrates how the dynamic of silence and suspicion reinforces divisions present before the uprising and even sharpens them because of the heightened stress on national unity.

Tartus is forcing newcomers, employees as well as businesses, to adapt to the atmosphere of the city. At the beginning of 2012, the owners of a coffee chain in Damascus decided to open a franchise in Tartus. The cafes in Damascus embody a new genre of cafés opening in the late 2000s that were designed to resemble a private library or office for an intellectual and artistic class. The aesthetic of these cafes was one of both consumption and leisure, as patrons were encouraged to read books from the shelves, play a piano in the main room, and stay as long as they want. Patrons were encouraged to serve themselves, ordering their coffee at the counter, rather than having table service. The owners of the chain selected to open a Tartus branch in Porto Tartus, a partially finished, mega-project housing hotels, apartments, and retail shopping areas along the sea. They explained that they had selected the complex because there are no lively streets with high-end establishments in the center of Tartus comparable to those found in Damascus or Latakia. The location’s safety, and the fact that the owners had the connections necessary to open a franchise there, attracted them to it. The café owner said that in summer 2012, his cafés and others were full, but that in the winter business was lighter, because people do not go out as much.

What is more interesting, however, is that the Tartus branch has had to adjust to the city. When the owners initially opened this café, they tried to reproduce the atmosphere of their Damascus branches. Yet their business suffered until they adapted the café to the overall atmosphere of the city—they removed the library and couches, replacing them with more chairs and table service. One owner explained these changes, stating, “what the market demands, we’ll supply” (hasab al-suq, min suq). The clearest example of this sensibility is the owners’ decision to offer water pipes (argile), something that would have been unimaginable and completely at odds with the image cultivated for its Damascus branches. We learn from this example that Tartus has its effect on all the businesses that enter it, infusing them with its culture and forms of social relations. These relations are the ones characteristic of pre-crisis Syria outside of Damascus. Significantly, the aspects of the café characteristic of a cultural center—including the library, artistic atmosphere, and self-service—had to be excised, reflecting the fact that Tartus cannot become a central place in its own right.

An Ambivalent Stance

One uncertainty hanging over Tartus as a model post-crisis city is the fact that it is not a regional power center. Latakia, further north, holds this distinction. It seems, however, that the regime is confident in the commitment and stance of Tartus residents, in contrast to the ‘Alawi community in Homs, which the regime endows with less power and resources and consequently trusts less.9 Nevertheless the Tartusis' view of their own identity and their relationship to the regime is marked by complexity and ambivalence. Take, for example, Daareen, a young mother in her early thirties. Originally from Tartus, she used to live in Aleppo with her husband, a general in the army who was recently killed in the conflict. Prior to his death and shortly after the onset of the crisis, Daareen had settled back in Tartus with their children. Daareen had grown up in Damascus as the daughter of a now-retired general in the secret services. She lived there for some twenty-five years and would spend summers in Tartus with her family.

 

Daareen remembers that until she was twelve, she ignored the fact that in Damascus she was an ‘Alawi living in the middle of a Sunni area, even though her father reminded her to “be careful of the neighbors.” For her identity card, Daareen’s father registered her place of origin (qayd, an administrative designation on the Syrian identity card) as Damascus, instead of Tartus. She recalled him telling her, “one day you will thank me for doing this.” Being registered from Damascus would make it harder to identify her sectarian affiliation based on her official ID.

Her father did this in the 1980s at a time when the regime was confronting the Muslim Brotherhood and people were being killed based on their identification. This example of a secret service general hiding his family’s place of origin for security reasons highlights the ambivalent identity of the Tartusis. Although working in the security apparatus, the general did not wholeheartedly feel part of the country’s ruling establishment and still feared that his family could be threatened based on their origins. It would have been rarer to find someone from Latakia expressing such ambivalence through concealment. Daareen said that she feels more comfortable in Tartus than she did in her Damascus neighborhood.

These complexities of Tartusi identification make it difficult for newcomers to feel part of the city. Malaz, a schoolteacher in his forties originally from Hama, has lived in Tartus for more than ten years. He noted that, although he eventually found a job and got married in Tartus, he has been unable to acclimate to the city. According to him, “people there are strange.” He mentioned that after numerous vetoes at the UN Security Council by Russia and China to prevent measures being taken against the Asad regime, many Tartusis started naming their newborns “Putin.” He concluded, “you can only see this in Tartus. Nowhere else.”

Continuous Disconnections

The disconnections touched on above are an important dynamic in Tartus, hidden behind the image of a united and welcoming government city for all. As was the case prior to 2011, the government’s strong control continues to conceal latent divisions within the society. Glimpses of this are evident in the suspicions one constantly encounters in navigating the city. Hani, the taxi driver who thinks Tartusis are sacrificing for the country, illustrates how suspicion reveals divisions. His experience also demonstrates how sectarian and regional lines are sometimes ambiguous and blurry. Hani explained that whenever he has a client in his taxi, he wants first to know their sectarian affiliation, especially if the person wants to go out of town. Inside the city, he caters to everyone, but he fears being abducted if he leaves the city. To discern a person’s sectarian identity, Hani pays close attention to accents. Most of the time, he can tell whether a person is, like him, an ‘Alawi from the coast, as they have a special accent. However, if the passenger is from the interior region, most of the time it is harder for Hani to discern his or her confession, as everyone from this region tends to have roughly the same accent. Lines are thus blurred.

The disconnections in Tartus affect people’s daily lives. Fadi, a young ‘Alawi from Homs, recalled how he and his wife were about to step into a taxi when another driver saw that his wife was not wearing a headscarf and was thus most likely not a Sunni. The driver came to warn them not to take that particular taxi, because the driver was from Idlib, and that could be dangerous for them. The couple took the taxi anyway. The driver from Idlib explained to them that although the governor had permitted taxis from all over Syria to operate in Tartus, work was difficult for him because of incidents like the one that had just occurred. There is a lot of competition in Tartus due to the large number of drivers, so the “sectarian card” is often played to get clients and hurt the competition.

Thus in Tartus, one’s sectarian identity might be something worth putting forward, or—depending on the situation—something best concealed. Another taxi driver, from Aleppo, said that he eventually decided to work primarily on call instead of picking up customers on the street—as many potential fares would not want to ride with him upon seeing his license plate from Aleppo. His main customers, it emerged, are chalet residents, who like him, hail from Aleppo.

 

As it has been the case prior to 2011, Syria has great diversity that extends beyond just sectarian belonging, and is often marked by regionalism. Before 2011, during military service, people would often stick with others coming from the same region. This phenomenon continues through the ongoing displacements of Syrians. Rivalries exist as well between ‘Alawis from the coast and ‘Alawis from the interior. Fadi, the young ‘Alawi from Homs, says said that ‘Alawis from Tartus insist that they are extending their hands especially to ‘Alawis from the interior. However, he thinks otherwise. “This is not true. They only say or make you feel this when there are economic interests,” he asserted.

Fouad, another young man from Homs, feels the same way as Fadi. He is a graphic designer who settled in a chalet after leaving Homs with his wife and daughter because he feared abductions. He was unable to find work in his field, so he now works as a store clerk, selling girls’ accessories. He explained, “it is the best thing working now in Tartus,” but then also confided that he does not like Tartus. In the past, he visited regularly to go to the sea, but even then he never really liked the city. He conceded that it is good place now because it is safe, but he mainly hangs out with people from Homs, mostly ‘Alawis but also some Sunnis. On connecting with people from Tartus, he asserted, “we came here for a short time, so I do not have the energy to make new friends. I do not know for how long I will be here.”

These images of Tartus, and the atmosphere they reveal, depict anything but an “Alawite-stan” on the coast. The atmosphere exists not so much to affirm the ‘Alawi-ness of the city, but rather to provide a sense of order and control under the regime, its institutions, and its ideology. Most Tartusis do not understand their power as coming from their region’s viability as an independent state, but from their celebration of and respect for the regime and the county’s institutions—an unwritten rule with which everyone coming to the city must comply. The people of Tartus are not insular. They follow the news of events in the rest of the country, where their youth are fighting. They do not instinctively focus only on their town, as people might from embattled Homs and Damascus. Their interest is thus not in the creation of a “country” on the coast, but in the defense of the regime, the state institutions, and the nation in its full territorial extent. This is the case because, as noted, most Tartusis still consider the integrity of the Syrian state as representing their own survival. The state’s integrity, however, is built upon maintaining the aforementioned disconnections to instill a sense of reassurance and domination.

The divisions and maintenance of a particular Tartusi atmosphere are not affirmations of the ‘Alawi-ness of the country. For example, after the death of Shaykh Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti, the most prominent Sunni religious figure in Syria, in spring 2013, numerous people gathered in his memory in front of government buildings to reaffirm their resistance to terrorism.

Many Tartusis enthusiastically defend a secular political system and society ostensibly inclusive of all its different components. Yet it is built on continuous disconnections. What lies beneath the rhetoric that all are welcome in Tartus is the feeling—among the “minorities” and the Sunni population alike—that each individual one encounters across ethnic divides is guilty of posing a threat to this image until proven innocent. This perception stems from the enduring legacy of the conflict between the regime and the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In this imagination, ‘Alawis are somehow connected with the security services (mukhabarat) and Sunnis with the Muslim Brotherhood. This does not mean that Syrians in practice deal with each other primarily on the basis of sect. Rather, there is a pervasive concern that others will deal with one on a sectarian basis. This fear can only be allayed by long periods of interaction between individuals, something made impossible by the mixing of new populations in contemporary Tartus. The fear of Mazen, the Tartusi dry cleaner, from his Sunni employee who uses the exact language of the regime is a prime example of this phenomenon. The employee has given no indication that he supports the Brotherhood or the opposition. He is likely using language unnatural to him precisely to allay the owner’s fears. In doing so, however, he arouses further suspicion. The ideology and social practices found in the government town of Tartus are produced by the actions of people on both sides of this divide to avoid what they fear most: the affirmation and dominance of a more extremist Sunni identity in Syria.

 

New Phenomena in the Current Crisis

Though Syria’s divisions today have a high degree of continuity with pre-crisis social relations, Tartus is not simply a replica of the pre-2011 state. Some changes occasioned by the crisis are perceptible. In particular, religion seems to have become a greater factor in group cohesion, and the makings of new inter-communal relations are evident. Such is the case at the home of ‘Alawi Shaykh Abu Ali in a village near Tartus. Abu Ali explained that he thinks the war will last for some time to come, but he is ready to help anyone who needs it, and for free. He regularly visits the homes of “martyrs” (shuhada), those who have died in the conflict.

Before the crisis, Syrians would go to a shaykh for advice about everyday concerns, but now most of them go to enquire about lost or disappeared relatives and loved ones. In Abu Ali’s house, the ‘Alawi sect is brought together, and intracommunal tensions, such as those based on regional provenance, recede. ‘Alawis from all over the country visit him to seek his counsel. The shaykh opens the Quran and the Hakme (a ‘Alawi religious book) and asks to God to help those coming to seek aid. More important than the answers provided is the communion and comfort that these moments bring to the individual.

Seated around the shaykh on one occasion are people from different regions of the country. Dalal, for example, is from Tartus. Her husband was abducted while serving in the army in Aleppo. In this tranquil and incense-infused environment, the shaykh told her that her husband “was still alive, currently looking sad, but he would one day come back, but only God knows when.” Afterwards, Dalal said that the shaykh’s words had made her feel more comfortable and that she had recovered hope. Most important, she explained, she had encountered someone in the room from Damascus. They exchanged their stories and fears, which made her feel closer to the person. Houses of shaykhs have thus been transformed from dispensaries of advice into social places, where links of solidarity are formed and rivalries among people coming from different regions are overcome. Thus, although migration to Tartus engendered by the crisis has largely reconstructed existing divisions, it has also created a new environment in which religion is increasingly becoming a factor in group cohesion.

Conclusion

The current trend in the international media is to present the situation in Tartus and the coast, in general, as part of a regime attempt to build an “Alawite-stan,” a country for ‘Alawis. By this logic, the regime and Syria’s ‘Alawis could fall back to this coastal homeland as a last option. In reality, however, it is not so much “’Alawi-ness” that is being celebrated and promoted in Tartus, as an unfailing belief in the regime, its institutions, and the Syria of al-Asad as it was built over decades. Their support of the regime is concomitantly a condition ‘Alawis view as necessary for their survival, but it is not reducible to only this. Unlike many embattled cities from which people are barely managing to escape, Tartus continues to celebrate and support the regime with popular demonstrations. It is thus the notion of “government town” that best describes the identity of Tartus during the present crisis.

Tartus is a city where the rule of law still applies, where officials from the state apparatus, the Ba‘th Party, and local civilian leaders from assorted backgrounds still hold public meetings. It is a city where government buildings are used to host displaced people from different regions and origins, and where people still take to the street to cheer for Syria, for example, after a winning performance by the national football team. Such scenes are almost impossible to find in other Syrian cities today. With a few changes and adaptations, the pre-crisis logic of rule continues to function in Tartus and is used by the regime to paint a picture of what the country under President Asad could be without the crisis.

 

Tartus thus serves as an exhibit for the regime to bolster its case that political reforms are unnecessary. The government wants to show that if Tartus is “doing well,” the whole country could experience the same, if only combat would cease. But, as has been the case before in Syria, under the veneer of the unity lay a more complicated situation of social and spatial separations. The “governmental town” system in Tartus, in this way, stands as a mirror reflecting the regime’s vision of the ideal state and society in Syria, as well as its more hidden functioning.

This study of Tartus helps shed light on the general functioning of the Syrian regime, and how it is still at work in that city. It also aids in grasping how regime officials view “the state” in Syria. No “Alawite-stan” is on the horizon in Tartus. On the other hand, one could argue that in this city, shielded from much of the current conflict, the regime had a golden opportunity to undertake and demonstrate reforms. It instead chose to continue to portray the state and society as unchanged and unchanging, implicitly asserting that all is well. It makes one wonder whether this is so because the structure of the regime cannot, in fact, be reformed.

Notes

See, for example, this Sama telvision report from 24 August 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbbvKsXfbiM.

2 See “In Ravaged Syria, Beach Town May Be Loyalists’ Last Resort,” New York Times, 22 December 2012.

3 It could probably be argued that the city of Suwayda, in the south, is also representative of a government town. It is primarily populated by Druzes, another religious minority in Syria.

4 According to a state-controlled newspaper, in February 2013 there were about 42,560 displaced families, totaling 255,360 people, in Tartus. See Tishreen, 18 February 2013.

5 See this report on the governmental television channel, posted 30 April 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vawKBk0wm4.

6 See this news report on government television showing residents of Tartus complaining about kidnappings and problems with services and jobs, posted on 28 January 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I50if2gQ5IY.

7 Observations and interviews were conducted with inhabitants of Tartus in 2013.

8 The government television channel shows one such demonstration supporting the Turkish people in Tartus, posted on 26 June 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avbzTksYAGA&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

9 See Aziz Nakkash, “The Alawite Dilemma in Homs: Survival, Solidarity and the Making of a Community,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Berlin, 2013.

This article was originally published by Jadaliyya.