Fears of Bloodbath: Uneasy Calm Reigns in Assad Stronghold

By Thilo Thielke

Photo Gallery: Uneasy Calm in Syrian Stronghold Tartus Photos
Thilo Thielke/ DER SPIEGEL

The wealthy Syrian port city of Tartus, a stronghold of the Assad regime, is an island of calm in the war-torn country -- for now. Members of Assad's Alawite clan and the Christian minority are bracing themselves for a bloodbath if the city falls to the rebels, and partying while they still can.

A group of elegant young women are sitting around a small bistro table on the seaside corniche, laughing and clinking their glasses. They're wearing international chic: dresses by Yves Saint Laurent, shoes by Gucci and glasses by Ray-Ban. There are three types of beer available: Mexican Corona, served with a slice of lime wedged in the neck of the bottle, Heineken from the Netherlands and Almaza from Lebanon.

A pleasant Mediterranean breeze is blowing into the fortress, which once offered refuge to the Crusaders. "Enjoy," says the waiter. It's Saturday evening in the Syrian city of Tartus -- party time.

A war is raging only a few kilometers to the east, but in this port city the only signs of war are the conversations of local residents, which often revolve around neighbors and friends who have packed their bags and fled to nearby Lebanon.

Many Syrian Christians and, most of all, Alawites -- members of the Muslim faction that also includes dictator Bashar Assad -- live in the coastal strip around Tartus. They have benefited from the Assad system for decades. Many are wealthy and hold key positions in the regime. But now they must fear the advancing rebels.

Women wearing headscarves and speaking northern and eastern dialects have become a more common sight in the busy streets. They are refugees from the fighting that is raging in other parts of Syria. The walls of buildings are covered with large posters showing soldiers in the uniform of the Assad regime, posing with bazookas, assault rifles and cartridge belts across their chests.

"All of these men are dead. They died in the battle for our freedom and are being honored as martyrs on the walls of the city," says a businessman as he drives his Volkswagen through heavy traffic. His first name is Nawar, but he is too afraid of the rebels to give us his last name. Nawar, a Sunni Muslim, has only been back in Syria for a few years. He worked as an investment advisor in Vienna, where he made a lot of money and then invested it in tourism in his native Syria.

A few months ago, Nawar was driven out of his villa in Homs, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away as rebels advanced ever deeper into the Syrian heartland. The only place where he still feels safe is the area around Tartus. "Tartus is different," says Nawar. "Tartus is modern Syria." He turns up the car stereo, which is playing the Italian pop singer Eros Ramazzotti, and cheerfully honks his horn at a brunette in tight jeans. Nawar feels as free as he would in the West. But how much longer will it last?

Risk of a Religious War

Since fighting began about two years ago, the conflict has spread to almost every part of Syria. The United Nations estimates that 70,000 people have already been killed. In the capital, Damascus, coffee house conversations are now accompanied by the thunder of government artillery and the whistling of rebel shells. Aleppo, the economic capital in northern Syria, is divided, while the northwestern city of Idlib is under siege by the rebels. More and more fighters are entering the war zone from Turkey to join the rebellion against the Assad regime.

"These people want to establish an Islamic theocracy," claims Nawar. "They are supported by the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia and Qatar." He fears that if the radical Sunnis were to advance on Tartus, Alawites and Christians will suffer a bloodbath. "This is also an attack on religious tolerance in the country," he says.

There are many fronts in the carnage that is threatening stability in the Middle East. The rebels claim that the uprising against Assad is a struggle for more democracy. The family has ruled the country with an iron fist since 1970, first under Hafez Assad and, since 2000, under his son Bashar. They have oppressed and killed tens of thousands of people.

But there is an increasing risk that the rebellion will expand into a religious war. The Americans now intend to increase their aid to the rebels, but so far the West has declined to intervene militarily, while others have been only too willing to help the rebels. They include the Al-Nusra Front, which is associated with al-Qaida and is fighting for a radical Sunni version of Islam. Their hatred is directed, in particular, at Assad and his allies, not necessarily because of his poor record on democracy, but because he is an Alawite.

Alawites make up only 10 percent of the Syrian population. Many Sunnis treat them as infidels because they, like the Shiites, revere Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Consequently, Shiite Iran supports Assad while Sunni Saudi Arabia supports the rebels. Alawites and many Christians in the region surrounding Tartus are praying that Assad will win the conflict.

Christians Fear Rebels

Arsanios Lahham is one of them. The Greek Orthodox priest includes the government's troops in his prayers during Sunday church services. "If the Sunni rebels capture Tartus, we will all have to fight for our lives," says Lahha who, with his thick beard, sturdy build and black robe, looks like a relic from the days of the Crusades. "We were born here, and we will die here."

Where else can the Syrian Christians go? Christians are persecuted or the target of discrimination in many countries of the region, like Iraq and Egypt. Lebanon, a small and crowded country, is also deeply divided.

"Assad was one of the last leaders in the Middle East to practice religious tolerance and offer protection for minorities," says Lahha. "To us, he is a hero." The priest believes that the rebels would wipe out the Christians.

About 10 percent of all Syrians are Christians, and Lahham's congregation consists of 800 families. There are three Greek Orthodox congregations in Tartus alone, as well as a Maronite and a Protestant church, says Lahham. "So far we have lived in peace here with all denominations and religions."

Tens of thousands have fled from the embattled regions to Tartus. Many are staying with relatives. Those with means have rented apartments, causing rents to triple in the last few months in Tartus, a city of about 100,000 people. Other refugees are being housed in the local stadium or in temporary shelters set up in schools.

The Shami family from Aleppo is staying in a former school for deaf mutes. The Shamis are Sunnis. After their house burned down, one of their sons was wounded by shrapnel and the other son began screaming in his sleep, they packed their belongings and went to Tartus.

Along the affluent Mediterranean coast, with its large Alawite and Christian communities, they seem like people from another planet. They rarely leave the school building, and they intend to return home as soon as the war is over. They're intimidated by the popular preconception here that all Sunnis are primitive radicals who conceal their women under headscarves. They spend much of the day in a sparsely furnished classroom, staring out the window.

Not far away is the palace of Nizar Moussa, the governor of Tartus Province, who invites his guests to sit in palatial oriental armchairs. There are 14 portraits of dictator Assad hanging on the walls of his oversized office. He has eight fixed-line telephones and two mobile phones to help him keep in touch with the outside world. Scenes from Syrian battlefields flash across a TV screen in Moussa's office.

The battles are often waged over small villages, but Moussa believes that the entire world is involved in the Syrian conflict. "The Americans, the Germans, Israel and the Saudis are siding with our enemies," he says, "while Iran, China and Russia are on our side." He points out that this amounts to a stalemate, and that everyone will lose in the end. "So you can tell the world that they should leave us alone," he says. Then he stares at the TV and reports of a suicide bombing in Damascus.

Businessman Nawar's mobile phone is ringing again. This time it's a friend from the Czech Republic, who wants to know if Nawar is still alive. "There is no war here," says Nawar, "not yet." Then he leaves, heading for a nightclub. You only live once, he says, and soon it'll all be over. To stay warm, he buys a can of Red Bull mixed with vodka at a roadside stand.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Graphic showing religious affiliation in Syria.


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