Syrian refugees boys fill up their water bottles, at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Faour near the border with Syria, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. U.N. chemical weapons experts headed to a Damascus suburb on Wednesday for a new tour of areas struck by a purported poison gas attack, activists said, as the U.S. laid the groundwork for a possible punitive strike and the U.N. chief pleaded for more time for diplomacy. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
ARTOUS, Syria (AP) — In this picturesque coastal city fiercely loyal to President Bashar Assad, beaches are dotted with swimmers, cafes are filled with Syrians smoking water pipes, and restaurant bars are packed with late night revelers, seemingly oblivious to the civil war raging in the rest of the country.
The Mediterranean port has emerged as an unusual example of coexistence in this country torn apart by sectarian violence. It is populated mostly by members of Assad's Alawite minority sect, the most diehard supporters of his regime. At the same time, hundreds of thousands have flocked here to escape violence in war-shattered cities such as Homs and Aleppo, many of them Sunnis, some with relatives fighting alongside the rebellion.
Despite a few small incidents of verbal arguments reported by residents, sectarian tensions are minimal. Neither side wants to bring the war here.
"I think we all realized that this is the last safe place in Syria," said Fuad, a Sunni chef in one of the city's restaurants, who arrived with his family from the Damascus suburb of Daraya four months ago. Like others interviewed by The Associated Press here, he spoke on condition he be identified by his first name only, or not at all, for security reasons.
Even now, with looming punitive military action by Western countries against Assad's regime, residents of Tartous seem unfazed. Some have fled to neighboring countries for a few days to wait out the strikes, but there are no signs of widespread panic — though many are convinced military installations in the city would be targeted.
"Right outside of the city, there's a missile base and if they decide to hit, that's one of the things to go first," said Rana, a resident university student studying English literature. "However, we're sure they won't be hitting civilians, so we're not worried."
Unlike most other towns and cities across the country, Tartous has been relatively untouched by the 2 ½ years of violence that has killed over 100,000 people, ravaged the economy, and leveled entire apartment blocks.
The city, about an hour and a half drive west of Homs, is ringed with 14 army checkpoints, covering the its five entrances. Posters of Assad hang on walls, electricity posts and windshields.
The Alawite sect, which makes up about 13 percent of Syria's population of 23 million, has historically been centered in towns and villages of Syria's mountainous coast that make up the provinces of Tartous and Latakia. If the regime falls, that heartland could become a refuge for the community — and even for Assad himself — from which to fight for survival against a Sunni majority that has long resented their domination.
The rebels fighting to topple Assad are mostly Sunnis. They recently overran a string of Alawite villages in Latakia, but the regime quickly reversed those gains.
Tartous, also home to the one of the country's two main seaports serving as Russia's only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union, is perhaps the only Syrian city that has never seen a significant protest against Assad. According to residents and aid workers, around 700,000 people, mostly Alawites and Sunnis, have streamed from hotspots into the city, which originally had a population of less than one million.
Most are women and their children, whose husbands or fathers stayed behind to keep their jobs or to join in the fighting.
"One can easily say that Tartous is the only city that benefited from the crisis," said a Christian restaurant owner who moved his family here from Homs to Tartous two years ago, after his restaurant in that city was seized by the rebels.
"Tartous is being built on the ashes of other Syrian cities, it became alive as other cities died," he added, while going through bills in his newly opened restaurant by the sea.
Still, signs of war creep in. Begging and prostitution among the displaced is spreading. Every now and then, the siren of ambulances on their way to funerals for fallen soldiers pierces the calm.
Hanadi, a 28-year-old woman from the district of al-Sukkari in Aleppo, arrived in Tartous seven months ago with her two children and one bag of belongings. Her husband stayed behind, joining a rebel battalion fighting Assad's forces.
She roams the streets, selling flowers while she looks for work in the restaurants along the city's seaside corniche.
"He wanted us to come here so that we'd be safe," she said of her husband. "But he couldn't come himself, he could not leave his duty of jihad," or holy struggle, she said, referring to the fight against Assad.
Ironically, many of the males among Tartous locals are fighting alongside Assad's forces.
"Most of our sons are fighting in the regular army," said Lamia, a local whose son and two nephews were deployed.
"It was hard at first to grasp that I live in the same building with a woman whose son or husband might be the one to kill my son in the fighting. We have learned to live together while our sons fight each other," she added with a sigh and a prayer: "Allah protects these young men."
Residents of this city say the newcomers are welcome, as long as they play by the rules.
"As long as our guests don't attack our political stance nor insult our army or president, they are more than welcome to live and work among us," said a local Alawite shop owner.
At checkpoints, soldiers search cars meticulously and check people's IDs. According to residents, plainclothes police agents regularly patrol the streets for suspicious cars or signs of trouble.
"Because Tartous is the only city that has not witnessed protests and therefore a government crackdown, they have to be more careful than ever," said Elias, a Christian local. "You never know when someone would decide to mess with the calmness of the city."
The streets are lined with hundreds of pictures of "martyrs" — local young men who died fighting alongside the regular army. They mix with the pictures of Assad, pro- regime slogans and Syrian flags.
"With you till death," reads one of the slogans written under an Assad portrait.
"They say Tartous lost nothing to this crisis," said Samer, an Alawite businessman. "We lost so many good young men, we lost a lot."
Like in other Syrian cities, prices in Tartous have gone up, for everything from food to apartment rentals — in some cases tripling.
Hundreds of men, women and children as young as five years of age roam the streets looking for jobs, selling gum and flowers, or asking for money.
With no source of income, some female newcomers have turned to prostitution, standing on street corners chatting up men. Basma, a young woman who sells flowers to cafe goers, is one of them.
"She has a phone full of pictures of girls," said Sami, a young man who had been approached by Basma. "For 500 Syrian pounds ($2.5), she'll give you the number of the girl whose picture you choose and you take it from there."
Even as residents continue to invest in small-scale projects such as shops and restaurants, fears are strong that the peace here could end.
"We're scared we'll wake up one morning and find the conflict has moved to Tartous. But until then, we have families to provide for and can't keep living off our savings," said an Alawite businessman who recently arrived from Homs.
"It's not a choice to leave everything and start over, but sometimes you have to."
AP writer Zeina Karam contributed to this report from Beirut.
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