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Coastal Syrians carry on despite threat of Islamic State

Regime supporters along the Syrian coast are confident the Syrian army can triumph and that the Islamic caliphate declared by the Islamic State in eastern parts of the country won’t last.

LATAKIA, Syria — Life goes on fairly normally on the Syrian coast, which is mainly inhabited by people loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, despite the rapid developments taking place elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. Though some continue to receive the bodies of their children who lost their lives while fighting alongside the Syrian regime, other Syrians seem not to be interested in the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate by the Islamic State (IS, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS).

In a small beach cafe in the city of Latakia — whose northern countryside continues to be plagued by fierce battles — a group of young men and women gathered, deriding the proclamation of an Islamic caliphate by IS. One of them asked, “Are you not afraid that this project will deprive you of your lifestyle?”

“Those seeking to implement such a project will not be able to control all of Syria. They will be defeated in the end. Perhaps a portion of the Sunnis will live under (IS) rule, but their state will not persist,” he said.

A young woman raised an alcoholic drink and said, “We might have been leading a bad life under the rule of the Syrian regime, in light of the corruption and lack of political freedom, but we stand by the Syrian army in its battle to defend our way of life.”

This seems to be the stance of the middle-class youth on the Syrian coast — this social class that has not yet paid a dear price for the war raging in Syria. However, as IS continues to make gains, it could absorb the many brigades opposing the Syrian regime under its banner; such a development, however, is not taken very seriously by the regime’s supporters.

A fighter in the ranks of the Syrian regime told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “I do not believe this would happen. On the contrary, [the declaration of the caliphate] comes in our favor, as this will deepen the rift between the armed battalions. On the other hand, all the countries of the world reject the idea of an Islamic state, which would cut off all forms of aid to those brigades. In any case, we will continue to fight alongside the Syrian regime in this seemingly unending war. Whether an Islamic state was proclaimed or not, the war will continue. Our fate will be the same whether we are defeated at the hands of IS or others. That is why we are not in the least interested in the proclamation of the caliphate.”

In the Syrian regime-controlled areas, the security situation is still acceptable. However, the economic conditions are dire and there appears to be no hope for a breakthrough in the foreseeable future, as dozens of young men continue to go to war while large numbers of them are killed. Is it the lack of hope that renders most of the regime supporters uninterested in the proclamation of the Islamic caliphate?

According to a college student living in the coastal city of Tartus who preferred not to reveal his identity, “There is no hope in living in this country." He said, "I am seeking to leave once I graduate. I do not care whether the Islamic caliphate is established or any other project, because in all cases the defeat of the Syrian regime means that we, as Alawites, will pay for standing by the regime. On the other hand, if the Syrian regime triumphs, it will be at the cost of the bloodshed of the people and life under its rule will be akin to hell. There is no light at the end of the tunnel in all cases.”

Despite the apparent confidence in the regime’s victory visible on banners in the streets of the Syrian coastal cities and the victorious phrases on the pictures of the hundreds of men who have died in the war, despair and confusion are clear on the faces of the people. No one seems to actually care about political and field developments. There are no confrontations or security incidents in these areas, but the air seems to be filled with the smell of death, and the people of the Syrian coast seem to be waiting for something that might never come.

“With or without an Islamic caliphate, it seems that we have lost our country forever. Syria will never be back as it was. We will defend ourselves, whether against IS or any other organization,” a taxi driver in Tartus told Al-Monitor.

“It does not matter what form our enemies take. Besides, everything is a lie. All media outlets have been lying to us for three years, including the media that supports [the regime]. My father was killed in the war two years ago. Back then, the official Syrian media said that the war would end within a few months,” he said.

A pro-opposition Alawite who hails from Tartus told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “People here no longer have confidence in the Syrian regime or any other party, but they cannot do anything but support the regime. As for the proclaimed caliphate, it will not affect their lives in the foreseeable future and this project was doomed to failure before its inception.”

The opposition supporter placed the responsibility for the caliphate squarely at the feet of Assad, saying, “It is the result of the policy of a totalitarian regime, which had engaged Syrians in a civil war to protect its power. People here do not care about the conflict between the different powers that are fighting against the Syrian regime, because they have lost hope for a better future. This is not to mention that the Syrian regime media and the failure of the Syrian opposition have made the people convinced that there is no difference between the opposition forces and the regime, whether these forces are calling for an Islamic caliphate or the regime is calling for a democratic state,” he said.

At first glance, it seems that the Syrian regime's supporters along the Syrian coast have faith in the regime's ability to triumph and protect them. However, the truth is deeper: People are despairing and no longer trust what is being said in the media after three years of deception, war and death.