Tartous, like many Alawite areas, is more liberal than Syria’s majority Sunni provinces. Women wear skimpy bathing suits on sandy beaches. Restaurants are stocked with alcohol.
Russia, one of Assad’s last remaining allies, retains its last warm water port in Tartous. These days, few ships go in and out of the walled base since Western states imposed punitive economic sanctions to pressure Assad to leave.
Long-time residents estimate that nearly half of Syria’s entire Alawite population has relocated to Tartous province since the uprising started. Finding an apartment in the city that swelled from 900,000 to 1.2 million inhabitants is now a matter of luck, real estate agents say.
Private homes once thudded with music late into the night. Young men and women giggled and smoked water pipes at cafes with a sea view. More chic restaurants with flowers and white tablecloths opened monthly.
But banners put up by enthusiastic residents some months ago suddenly seem stale. “Bashar don’t worry, your people will drink blood for you,” some said. “Assad forever,” others said.
The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, was once a marginalized and impoverished people who took refuge in the coastal mountains.
When Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970, the fortune of his Alawite community changed for the better. Many came to dominate Syria’s elite, a trend that continued when Bashar took over upon his father’s death in 2000.
It remains unclear if the fear that has eclipsed the mood of defiant confidence in Tartous will last or be a passing panic.
But more and more cars with Damascus plates are arriving, and Alawites from the shaken capital say the message is clear.