The letter that follows is part of a project that draws on citizen journalists to depict daily life in war zones where international reporters cannot travel due to threats from the warring parties. The author is writing under a pseudonym for his own protection. The project, based at Stony Brook University’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, is funded by the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation. Istanbul-based journalist Roy Gutman edited.
Tartous—When Syria’s national uprising began six years ago, and young people everywhere else in the country were calling for the overthrow of the regime, up to a thousand loyalists would march in the streets of Tartous in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
“Al-Assad! Or we burn the down the country,” chanted the regime elements among them.
Tartous has the biggest concentration of Syria’s Alawite minority and is the heartland for Assad’s Alawite-dominated government. So when the regime summoned the sons of our sect as backup forces against what it called a terrorist threat, Alawite families willingly sent their men and boys.
Today Tartous is in mourning, with as many as 100,000 dead from the fighting and well over 50,000 wounded, out of a population of 2 million in the province. Women in black fill the streets of this city of 800,000, grieving for their sons and husbands, and a dozen or more coffins arrive every day from the front. Many of the young men of Tartous are now in hiding—by some estimate 50,000 of them—and the government has to conduct house-to-house raids to find recruits.
This is no longer a city of fools. A small minority still believe that Assad is fighting terrorism, but most people I know think Assad has cheated his own people by sending them into an endless, pointless war.
Tartous today is a city of the poor. The province is packed with 1.2 million displaced civilians fleeing active war zones, but with the exception of one camp for 20,000 internally displaced people, or IDPs, they’ve been left to fend for themselves, driving up the cost of housing.
The Syrian pound has collapsed, and costs for staples have doubled, while salaries have gone up just a fraction. The only meat most families consume is chicken, and that’s once a month. Even heating fuel for the winter is a dream for most—it will cost half your salary. Utilities are the worst ever; we have electricity six hours a day.
Tartous is also a city of the intimidated. The security forces, always heavy-handed since Assad’s father took power in 1970, spun off the National Defense Force, widely known as the Shabiha, and together they have arrested most of the political opposition as well as civil-society activists—anyone opposing them. Regime intelligence circulated “black lists” of those supporting the revolution, and most were beaten up, expelled, or killed. Today no one can voice his thoughts, even to a family member, even less to a neighbor.
The exception is at funerals, where families of the dead often curse Assad and the regime. When a cousin of mine died in the summer of 2014, the family was in a state of rage. His mother collapsed, his father seemed bewildered. An honor guard brought the coffin but wouldn’t allow the family to open it and see the body. His mother started cursing Bashar al-Assad and “his damned war.”
Almost every family has a tale of losses. Rihab, a 40-year-old widow I know, is typical. Her husband, an elementary-school teacher, volunteered for the National Defense Force militia in late 2011. “He wanted to write his own story of patriotism. He thought it would be an easy task, and the terrorists were weak foes that he and his comrades could crush without difficulty,” said Rihab, which is not her real name.
During an attempt to storm the Waer neighborhood in Homs early the following February, he was felled by a mortar. “All I got from the regime was some empty words and a small sum of money,” she said. (Families of fallen soldiers receive a lump sump equal to $1,000, and half-salary, which amounts to about $30 a month.)
The bigger calamity occurred the following September, when her eldest son began his compulsory military service. “We let him join his friends, thinking they would not put him in a dangerous place because his father was a martyr,” she said. But he was sent to Tabqa air base near Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, which the Islamic State extremists captured in August 2014. Two days before the base fell, most of the officers were airlifted to safety, leaving behind hundreds of common soldiers and a few officers who were captured and beheaded by ISIS.
“The image of my son never leaves my mind, except when I remember my husband dying of a mortar shell, his limbs flying in the air,” she said. “I envy those who lost a loved one in this war, for I lost two, my husband and my son.”
The call to patriotism lost its impact years ago, so the regime tried to replace it by putting the economic squeeze on Alawites. Economic pressures were easily brought to bear, because a great many Alawites are on the state payroll, either in the security forces or as government employees. I know many who enlisted in the military reserves only after they were threatened with the loss of their jobs and income.
The privileges that Alawites enjoy are deceptive, for the regime’s motivation in granting them is to secure control. Even the Alawite faith, a Shiite offshoot that borrows from other religions, has been corrupted by regime appointments of retired army officers as sheikhs in the faith. Of the five clerical sheikhs in my village, three are former army sergeants. This has added to the loss of a moral compass among so many Alawites.
The drive to stir sectarian hatred is a different story. The stereotype is that Alawites have a great animosity toward Sunnis and vice-versa, but from my perspective, that of an Alawite dissident, that is not the case. When the revolution began, Alawite opponents of the regime took to the streets in Baniyas, a predominantly Sunni town just north of Tartous, and formed a Sunni-Alawite Local Coordination Committee. During the height of the revolution, there were never any hostile communal acts against Sunnis. We’ve received Sunni IDPs by the hundreds of thousands without problems.
It was the regime that stirred sectarian hatred. Its propaganda machine constantly told Alawites that the Sunni majority wanted to topple the regime and take out revenge against them, and the Baath party apparatus constantly referred to “Sunni terrorist jihadis.” The rhetoric began in June 2011, when Sunni rebels attacked offices of the Alawite-dominated security headquarters in Jisr al-Shughur; the government circulated videos showing the violence. This sowed anger among young Alawites and helped the regime in its recruitment.
With Iran’s backing, the regime gave the Shabiha a green light to attack Sunnis, leading to a massacre in Bayda and Baniyas in May 2013. The regime ignited the killing spree when it turned over the body of a young Sunni man who died in prison to his family. When they saw the body and all the signs of torture, they got out weapons and fired in the air. This was the pretext for the regime’s order to Alawite militias to kill the Sunnis of Bayda and Baniyas and to burn down their houses. Regime intelligence members penetrated the militias and egged them on. Hundreds of Sunnis were summarily executed. But Sunnis did not exact revenge, and the sectarian propaganda slowly lost its effect. Still, the regime continued to demonize “Sunni jihadis.”
This reached a high point in May 2016 with a wave of explosions that killed about 180 civilians. Four were in Tartous and five in Jabla, a city in the Latakia mountains—all occurring within a 15-minute time span. ISIS claimed responsibility on its website, but the regime blamed the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel force. Many analysts suspect the regime sponsored the bombings in order to intimidate the population.
Checkpoints surround both cities, and police patrol them day and night and raid suspected houses, so it would seem nearly impossible for anyone to carry out the attacks simultaneously and precisely unless it was the regime itself. And we all know the regime had staged incidents before this that it blamed on terrorists [high-level security officials who defected to the opposition say the regime staged a series of bombings of security installations from late 2011 to mid-2012 and blamed them on Al Qaeda, before the militants had set up a presence in Syria].
Today the regime cannot make its case for Alawites to risk their lives, and all that’s left to it is forced recruitment. Early in March, security forces conducted raids in Tartous, gong door-to-door to seize youths for the military service. More than 600 were arrested and taken to join the fighting in the northeast.
Alawite society, which once bought into the regime’s sectarian propaganda, now protects young men trying to evade military service. An acquaintance of mine named Ammar from the Qadmous area northeast of Tartous was arrested at a checkpoint in Damascus in May 2014. After his deployment to the frontline in Zabadani, a mountain town near Damascus, where he saw half his comrades die, he deserted his unit and is now hiding in a small village in the Tartous mountains.
“I can’t work or travel. I can’t leave my village. But this is better than being in the army,” he told me. “I cannot choose death. For whom shall I die? And for what?”
Today the anger is spreading even though it is largely muted and expressed in private. When Syria’s prime minister, Imad Khamis, visited Tartous last month, Ahmad K, a farmer, was entertaining guests at his home in the village of Himmin. For years Ahmad had tuned into state television for the news, but in the past year he’s switched to Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news network, and Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab channel.
As they watched Khamis speaking on TV about the regime’s new projects for the region, as well as its drive against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate (which changed its name last year to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), and other groups, the guests started mocking the projects.
Suddenly, Ahmad exclaimed: “There can’t be any terrorism worse than that. They kill the sons of the poor to keep the corrupt in their posts, at the top of which is Bashar al-Assad.” His guests, embarrassed, laughed into their jackets.
But no one is ready to challenge the regime in the open.