Despite General Unrest in Syria, Tartus Province Remains Calm

Article Summary
Tarek el-Abd explores Tartus, a city and province in Syria that has thus far evaded any sectarian violence. Although there is a large security presence, daily life for the mostly pro-regime citizens remains routine. Opinions differ on the root of the country’s problems, but Assad and the military are considered essential for stabilizing Syria.

Among the fourteen provinces of Syria, Tartus has chosen to remain calm in its quiet, faraway corner. The province is maintaining its daily routine away from popular and armed protests. At the same time, Tartus is declaring its support for the regime.

This small province, with a 0% illiteracy rate, has its own stance with regard to the Syrian crisis. There are those who unequivocally support the regime, those who partially support it and others who reject Arabism in favor of Syrian nationalism. Regardless of their leanings, though, these coastal citizens all agree on a single phrase: “We love life.”

Every day, Tartus wakes up to the music of Fayrouz and the Rahbani Brothers (renowned Lebanese singers and artists). The sea follows suit, awakening from its slumber to a new sunrise as the city gradually comes back to life along the shoreline. There are no strikes or demonstrations here. There are no funeral processions either, because none of the inhabitants have fallen victim to gunfire. In fact, not a single shot has been heard by most of its dwellers, while some others thought that maybe they had heard something. Last April, rumors spread about cars full of armed men opening fire in some of Tartus’ neighborhoods.

Many of the youth from the city and its surrounding neighborhoods went around chasing cars that nobody saw, and word spread among the townsfolk of events that may or may not have occurred.

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It seemed obvious, at the time, that someone wanted sectarian strife to erupt between the different inhabitants of the city’s neighborhoods. But the province’s people, known for being well educated, started taking preventive measures. As a result, cars and pedestrians rarely venture on the roads at night. People plaster storefronts and Internet sites with the plate numbers of cars that were stolen from Latakia, which is witnessing popular or armed disturbances, depending on the area.

Fear grew in Tartus with the arrival of the large numbers of people who fled the events in the Idlib and Homs provinces. They brought with them stories about horrific crimes that were committed there by armed men. Tartus’ inhabitants were also concerned about the sectarian divisions in neighboring provinces, such as Latakia and Homs. However they have managed to successfully overcome any potential divisions and have prevented any form of economic boycott between the different sects that make up the city’s populace. This is in direct contrast to what has occurred in other neighboring towns.

Thus, Tartus’ inhabitants vigilantly monitor the events that are taking place in some of the other provinces, as there is a firm conviction among them that something is being plotted against their city. This is evidenced by the incessant attempts to smuggle arms into the city by sea and land, and the capture of some wanted individuals by security forces since the crisis first erupted. Although the incidents have not marred Tartus’ serenity, checkpoints were erected throughout the small city, many of its streets were closed off and its four entrances are carefully monitored. Anyone attempting to enter is subjected to a thorough search, amidst heightened security and vigilance on the part of the police and the city’s inhabitants.

Sheikh Arour had promised Tartus’s people through the Safa satellite channel “surprises befitting them.” Later, he reiterated his threats to make the mothers of the city weep, in addition to other warnings. Many of the city’s inhabitants think that Sheikh Arour and his threats contributed to heightening the level of psychological and security preparedness, which then led to a great number of reports about suspicious vehicles or individuals.

It is evident to all visitors to the city that there is a strong and trusting relationship between its inhabitants and members of the security forces. Greetings are constantly exchanged between them, and everyone abides the stopping and being searched at checkpoints. The quiet city’s walls, on the other hand, are adorned with slogans that salute the army and President Bashar al-Assad. The flags of Syria, Hezbollah, Russia and China flutter in great numbers throughout the squares. Banners in Arabic and Russian thank Russia.

The inhabitants of Tartus hold “sister” Russia, as they call her, with great regard. It has stood by them better than the Arabs have, and its foreign minister,Sergei Lavrov, is affectionately called “comrade Sergei.” Affection for the Russian bear can be best seen through a local joke that claims that President Vladimir Putin is of Syrian descent. How can that be? There is no doubt about it, according to them.

Opinions in Tartus vary when it comes to the situation in Syria; though everyone agrees that something is amiss in the country, views differ as to where the problem lies. While some put the blame on the Baath party, others hold the economic teams of past and current governments responsible. However, they all agree that Assad and the regular army are essential for restoring stability in the country.

Thus, Jamil, owner of a mid-sized business in the center of town, thinks that the government’s economic policies caused great damage to the country. The policies especially impaired people’s livelihoods, which led to the middle classes losing ground in favor of the poorer ones. He believes that investments strengthened the role of the private sector at the expense of the public one, to the point where a former prime minister used the term “God help us all” when describing the situation in some public fields.

The young man went on to criticize the government’s performance to the point that one might think he was a staunch opponent of the regime were it not for a photo of the president hanging on his office wall. He went on to say, “Assad is surrounded by officials who are still living in the 1990s. Their mentality rejects any evolutionary thought, while Assad is hugely popular, has visited Tartus and seemed to have a close connection with the people. Even amidst the events that are ravaging the country, he continues to meet with popular delegations that point out where corruption lies and speak to him of people’s living conditions. All of this is reflected through reform projects that the young president launched.”

On the other hand, Marwan, a graduate of the School of Economics who had just returned to town, believes that Assad would reap 90% of the Syrian people’s votes in any election. He wished that presidential elections could be held today, which would negate the claims of those who say that the people reject his rule. He opined that the country needed a reformative movement similar to the one that was initiated by late President Hafez al-Assad 42 years ago. According to the young economist, a look back at history reveals that the problem has always lain with the Baath party, beginning with its February 1966 movement, all the way to the present day. He said that the Baath party, which got to its sorry state as a result of its bad policies, now needs to put its tired house back in order.

He added that the party would become strong again if it returned to its foundational policies from the 1940s.

When his compatriot reminded him that al-Assad is the secretary-general of the Baath party, the young man clarified that “his excellency cannot monitor all of the party’s activities; these fall under the purview of its leadership and the people, all within the notion of institutional work.”

Majd, an engineer, deems the country a victim of sectarian strife and not revolution. This necessitates a harsh reaction from the state, according to Majd, “but al-Assad performed a miracle when he resolved to end the crisis through security and military means while simultaneously introducing reforms. He is announcing the adoption of a new, modern and comprehensive constitution, and future local and parliamentary elections that will be governed by new electoral laws. Additionally, he is approving the formation of new political parties. No other Arab ruler has done all of this before.”

The young man, who refuses to emigrate despite what he sees as an almost complete lack of employment opportunities, believes that the current political scene has engendered a national opposition movement that must participate in the government and the rebuilding of a new Syria. On the other hand, the opposition abroad is hopeless as long as it continues to ask for military intervention while sending foreign fighters to the country.

The population’s general mood here can be summarized as hoping that the storm ravaging their country ends as soon as possible without their promising city falling victim to any violent incidents. Will the combined efforts of the people and the security forces achieve this objective? Those from Tartus who worked or studied in the provinces that experienced bloodshed prefer not to see their city fall victim to similar destruction. There exists a general desire to safeguard the memory of this region’s picturesque beauty. They hope that the storm soon subsides, allowing the Syrian people to rebuild, united with one another, all that the conflict had destroyed. 

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Found in: tartus, tariq el-abd, syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syrian, sectarianism, city series, bashar al-assad, baath party, baath
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