TARTOUS, Syria — A dirt berm blocks the turnoff to Maaloula, an ancient Christian village held by Islamist rebels. The roadside Teeba eatery in Nabak lies pancaked, destroyed after the owner allegedly fed insurgents. Army boots festooned with plastic flowers and ivy adorn median strips in Tartous, tributes to thousands of local men who’ve died fighting for the regime in Syria’s civil war.
These are some of the symbols of the brutal conflict encountered on a two-day drive from Damascus to the contested city of Homs and to Tartous, a Mediterranean port whose fanatical devotion to President Bashar Assad is on display at daily funerals and on neon-lit epitaphs bolted to streetlights and building-size banners blazoned with portraits of the dead and their leader.
There have been so many men killed from Tartous’ Alawite community, the Shiite Muslim offshoot to which Assad belongs, that there’s no room left in the city’s cemeteries. Now the dead are buried in trash-littered municipal land on the outskirts.
Prewar Syria still exists along long rural stretches of the 160-mile round trip, testifying to how the war between the regime and mostly Sunni Muslim fighters backed by foreign Islamists is largely stalemated. Fog shrouds villages and orange groves. Sheep graze on the scrappy hillsides of the Orontes Valley. Trucks loaded with produce and imported goods churn past regimented rows of cypress trees, their trunks wind-bent at wild angles, leaning like besotted soldiers on parade.
“Thank God, the situation in Hasyeh is fine,” exclaimed a refinery worker from the small town, who was hitchhiking home. He explained that he must thumb rides to and from Homs every day because his war-stricken salary can’t cover the bus fare. “I don’t have a choice. I have to earn a living.”
But traffic is sparse and fuel very expensive. The highways are interrupted by checkpoints split into two lanes. One is for ordinary citizens. The other is the “military line,” which is reserved for soldiers as a time-saving perk. Many drivers flaunt the rule, however, pulling into whatever lane has the shortest wait. Soldiers at the checkpoints don’t seem bothered, giving papers a cursory glance or just waving vehicles through.
Checkpoints are places where people feel safe enough to take rides. At one, a soldier asked a driver to give a lift to a fellow serviceman who was dressed in civilian clothing. But after getting in, the young man chuckled from the back seat and said he actually was a student at Homs’ Al Baath University who’d posed as a soldier on leave to get priority over the other people who were waiting.
Many highways are insecure. There are kidnappings and robberies. The drive in and out of Damascus involves U-turns across median strips, wrong-way cruises along breakdown lanes and rumbles over rutted back roads to avoid sniper fire from a string of rebel-held suburbs and the industrial center of Adra.
Ruined, flame-scorched homes, office buildings and service stations in towns around Nabak, 50 miles north of Damascus, stand as reminders of a recent regime offensive to cut rebel supply lines and secure the road to Homs for convoys bearing chemical weapons being shipped out of the country under a deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia. The blacktop is scarred by tank treads and mortar impacts.
The government recaptured Nabak and nearby towns of the Qalamoun Mountains in late November after days of hard fighting against the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al Qaida affiliates now mauling each other in northern Syria. Hundreds of people died.
Some rebels then retreated to the mountainside village of Maaloula, one of only three places in the world where Western Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus’ era, still is spoken. While fighting the army, the rebels reportedly brutalized the Christians, vandalized their ancient churches and kidnapped 12 Greek Orthodox nuns. Regime sentries posted by a dirt berm bulldozed across the turnoff for Maaloula show that the rebels remain in control.
Checkpoints get thicker closer to Homs, Syria’s third largest city and once an important religious site for Christians and Muslims. The university student, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared for his safety, spoke of rising tensions at Al Baath pitting local Sunnis against Alawites and Christians displaced from the north, especially from the ravaged city of Aleppo.
Large parts of Homs have been devastated by the slaughter that erupted in mid-2011 after regime forces repeatedly mowed down demonstrators who were peacefully protesting four decades of Assad family rule. Sunni rebels and foreign extremists hold areas centered on the old city, and the foes trade desultory fire daily.
Bunkers mark the entrances of Alawite-dominated areas, where young uniformed men with oil-slick hair and Kalashnikov rifles patrol streets shielded from rebel snipers by bullet-pocked cinder-block walls covered in obituary posters. Pictures of Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad, who seized power in 1970 and died in 2000, seem to be on every home, in every cafe, in every shop window and on every car.
Father Ephraim Milhem remembered wondering about the aims of the protesters – who he said were exclusively majority Sunnis – when they poured into the narrow streets of Bab Siba’a, a middle-class neighborhood of modest balconied apartments that now sits on the front lines.
“At first, they didn’t attack the president and call to overthrow him,” said the soft-spoken, 36-year-old Greek Orthodox custodian of Bab Siba’a’s century-old St. Anthony’s Church. “They were against the system. It wasn’t until after the violence began that they called for Bashar to go.”
“They didn’t have a clear plan for themselves,” he continued. “I asked them, ‘What will happen when the president falls?’ They relied, ‘We’ll see.’
“My hope is not in people. My hope is in God. People won’t figure this out. Only God can solve this problem, because it has reached a place that is so complicated that it needs a miracle.”
Most of Bab Siba’a’s Sunnis fled after the army moved in, and they haven’t returned. Most of the Christians stayed. What was once a 75 percent majority Muslim neighborhood is now home to some 780 families, 80 percent of them Christian, Milhem said.
Tightening his long black coat against the cold, Milhem pointed to patches made to holes from two mortar hits on the church’s roof, and showed a visiting journalist the adjacent high school, where Christian and Muslim students attend classes together.
Fearful of rebel infiltration, the military depends on Milhem to vouch for Sunni residents who want to return to the shattered neighborhood, where only tiny stores are open, offering cheap cigarettes, sodas, gum and candy.
“The military leadership isn’t so comfortable to have the people come back to their homes,” Milhem said. “In their opinion, this neighborhood is not completely clear. They believe maybe some of those who come will communicate with (the rebels) and give them information.
“Christians, in their opinion, are OK to come back. If I say this guy is good, they listen to me.”
As dusk turns to night, the twinkling lights of numerous cargo ships waiting to unload at Tartous testify to the ineffectiveness of U.S. and European financial sanctions aimed at weakening an Assad war machine that heavily depends on men from Alawite strongholds on the coast.
The devotion to Assad isn’t limited to the area’s Alawites. Many Christians and Sunnis appear to support the president. Many seem to forget the allegations of atrocities committed by the army and believe that the rebels are composed only of foreign jihadists. For them, Assad is the only leader who can stave off their subjugation to harsh Islamic rule.
Assad “is the only way out of this,” said Hassan, a 44-year-old Christian father of two who asked that his last name be withheld.
The staunch support for the regime has made Tartous the safest city in Syria. There have been no major attacks, and handfuls of vacationing Syrians still check in to Porto Tartous, a marble-clad luxury seaside hotel run by an Egyptian firm. The half-mile-long resort, the largest on the Syrian coast, features high-end boutiques, gourmet restaurants, cinemas and a spa.
The area’s governor, Nizar Mousa, presides over the local administration from a heavily guarded, lavishly appointed downtown office with intricately carved, hand-painted ceilings of blue, purple and orange hues.
Sitting by a bank of more than a dozen telephones and surrounded by pictures of Assad, Mousa attributed the stability to the education level of the 900,000 inhabitants, suggesting that the regime’s opponents aren’t as bright or as civilized.
“When there is education, there is civilization. Here is civilization. If you have civilization, there is no place for al Qaida,” he asserted. “That’s why it (the war) didn’t happen in Tartous.”
But the war is never far away.
The city’s obituary-plastered streets resound daily to the chatter of gunfire loosed into the air by the funeral processions of local soldiers. Government buildings, hotels and other makeshift accommodations are packed with an estimated 70,000 people displaced by the fighting elsewhere.
Essam Jabouli, 50, has slept for nearly two years with six other family members on the cement floor of a small room in a state-owned center for the deaf that now houses some 1,000 refugees, mostly Sunnis from Aleppo.
“We don’t have a choice,” she said.
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