On a given day, the sound of gunfire rings over Tartous, a government-controlled city in the Alawite heartland on Syria’s western coast. But the gunfire isn’t from clashes – it’s ceremonial, shot during funerals of Tartous fighters from the Syrian army or shabiha militias who have died in battle.
Daily life here largely continues as normal – Tartous’s markets and cafes are buzzing, and the city is free of the shelling that has decimated swaths of the country. But increasingly, the conflict takes an emotional toll. Residents hang posters of their missing or dead loved ones on walls and street corners. Soldiers return for short breaks, carrying their weapons around town. Many women are shrouded in black, mourning dead husbands, sons and brothers.
On one balmy night, the city’s promenade filled with people. Young families relaxed near the expensive cars parked nearby, the property of wealthy traders and senior government officials.
“I came back on vacation after I spent a year on the battlefield in the Damascus countryside,” says one soldier, a native of Tartous. “I’m completely baffled. Where do these people get all this money to spend in coffee shops and at parties? How do people here live normally while we live in hellish conditions at the front?”
As he speaks, a Jeep with a party of laughing young men and women drives by, blasting loud music. Several posters of Assad are plastered on the car. It makes the soldier angry. “When I see such things, I feel like I shouldn’t go back to the front,” he says. “Must I and my friends die so they continue with their parties and lives as if nothing has happened?”
Despite the soldier’s anger, life in Tartous is unlikely to change anytime soon. Well-secured by regime forces, it’s widely considered the safest city in the country and has become a refuge for wealthy Alawite families, with a number of senior Syrian officials and businessmen moving their families to the coast.
But tens of thousands of displaced civilians from Aleppo, Homs and other besieged cities have also made the move. Before the war, the majority of Tartous residents were Alawite and Christian. Today, residents call it a melting pot for Syria’s sects.
The shift is evident on the city’s streets. One resident says that while the number of Sunni Muslims in the city was once less than 10 percent, today, “we can see veiled women in the city and at the market – it’s commonplace. The displaced families [make sure to] publicly show their loyalty to Assad, so they are left alone by the security apparatus.”
Unlike in Latakia city, another Alawite stronghold further along the coast, there are no permanent checkpoints in Tartous city. Temporary checkpoints are set up at night, and IDs are sporadically checked. The only permanent checkpoints are located at the city’s main entrances.
But discrimination based on sect and hometown is present at the checkpoints. Residents say Sunni passengers are often requested to step out of their vehicles for further inspection; soldiers then check to ensure they are not wanted by the regime.
Increasingly, Tartous is also feeling the effects of Syria’s tanking war economy. Though the markets are bustling and open until nine at night, shopkeepers say people are holding off on spending money.
“All this is meaningless,” says one clothing store owner, shrugging at the crowds walking by his display. “Most people come here to window shop or to pass the time. Very few people actually come to buy. I can barely make ends meet to feed my family even though I own a store downtown. Sales and purchases are few and far between, and the Syrian pound keeps deteriorating.”
One opposition supporter living in the city says that despite an appearance of harmony, coexistence among sects in Tartous remains tentative as the city’s social fabric changes.
“It is ruled by fear of the authorities,” the supporter says. “There are neighborhoods that are still separated – for Sunnis, Alawites or Christians – but there are some mixed neighborhoods at the city center. The Sunnis that have been displaced are mostly living in Sunni-majority neighborhoods or in displacement communities or shelters.”
Edited by Karen Leigh.