By Sadeq Abdelrahman
(Tartous, Syria) – Tartous is a quiet coastal city that has received thousands of displaced people from different Syrian cities. As a result, the city has not experienced any severe crises apart from the economic consequences of the conflict that have affected every corner of Syria. Battles rage far from the city, and the only bullets one hears in Tartous are shot in the air during the funerals of those who lost their lives fighting for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Tartous is now one of the most stable of the regime’s strongholds. It houses the regime’s main naval base, which is also used by Assad’s Russian allies. Despite these facts, protest activity started early in the city.
The first demonstration in Tartous began at the Mansour mosque in the Barania neighborhood on April 8, 2011. After this, protest activity took the form of small, dispersed demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, like writings on walls and pamphleteering on the streets. But the protest in Tartous lost momentum. Peaceful civil protest ended in Tartous out of fear of retaliatory violence from the regime, which took advantage of already-existing sectarian tensions. While Alawite and Christian activists worried about their presence in the Sunni-dominated opposition, Sunnis feared sectarian massacres similar to that of Banias, which occurred in Tartous province in May of 2013.
Salim (a pseudonym), 25, an activist in the Committee of the Free in Tartous to Overthrow the Regime and a medical student, reminds us of the role Banias played in popular mobilizations. “It is one of the cities that began the peaceful uprisings. The residents of Tartous were waiting to see what would happen due to the complicated sectarian makeup of the city,” he said.
As the overall Syrian uprising progressed in the country’s cities and suburbs from small demonstrations to larger ones, followed by an armed uprising, the uprising in Tartous receded into dark alleys.
“The main reason for that was the arrests of all the known figures who participated in the first demonstrations in Tartous,” said Salim. “Among them were a number of members of the Damascus Declaration. In addition, large numbers of people were martyred all over the country, and people were scared that the same thing would happen in Tartous.”
Salim said he and other opposition members founded the revolutionary committee in Tartous on April 22, 2011.
“Despite the fact that we only had four large demonstrations, we continued to plan for smaller, impromptu demonstrations and other forms of peaceful civil protest,” he said.
In addition to demonstrations, thousands of flyers were distributed in the dark, narrow alleys of Tartous, especially during power outages. Despite the participation of a number of Alawite and Christian youth in the protests, Salim explains that the majority of activities were cantered in Sunni neighborhoods.
“In the beginning, some people from other sects took part in the large demonstrations in Tartous, then a number of them continued to participate in other actions, particularly pamphleteering in the streets of the city,” he said.
Dozens of young men and women from Tartous were imprisoned and released after varying periods of time. Security forces knew the identities of most of the individuals in the opposition in the city, which made arresting opposition members much easier. The security forces were also enabled by the lack of a cohesive, supportive environment that could support the uprising.
“Many of Tartous’s residents, particularly the Sunnis, were with the uprising,” said Salim. “Tartous began with large demonstrations which then became small. The uprising didn’t recede here because we failed, but because of the regime’s violent and thuggish response, as well as the fear of sectarian massacres in the city,” he explained.
Salim believes that the protests dwindled because they were no longer effective, especially after thousands of regime soldiers from the city and province were killed.
“In the committee we began preparing for the period after the uprising,” he said. “We formulated plans about how to establish civil peace and have national reconciliation in the city,” he added.
Kamal (a pseudonym), 23, is a university student who was arrested for his activities in Tartous and later released.
“I was arrested because of reports from informers about my activities. I was tortured, but not to the violent extent that Sunni activists were. This sectarian regime takes into consideration that I am Christian,” he said.
Kamal adds that the regime uses sectarianism to tame the city.
“It seems as if the regime entrusted each sect with the mission of containing its protestors,” he said. “It was able to exert complete control over Alawites, who make up half of the city’s population. The Christians remained neutral, but expressed public support for the regime for reasons related to security and their minority status,” he said.
Kamal believes that Sunni neighbourhoods in Tartous were never fully committed to the uprising, primarily because the Sunnis are a minority in the city, but also out of economic interest: most Sunnis in Tartous are middle and upper middle class, thus they had an interest in not rocking the boat and maintaining the status quo.
But activists also believe that the Sunnis also fear a massacre.
“This is the main reason the city is calm,” said Jihad, 30, a government employee.
Activists worry that any major opposition action would lead to sectarian clashes in the city which may in turn lead to massacres in Sunni neighbourhoods such as the ones in Ras Al-Naba’a and Bayda in Banias. Sunnis paid a hefty price for the strong opposition presence and activities in those cities.
Jihad is reluctant to express his opinions in front of his relatives, friends, and colleges.
“I am from an Alawite family whose members were leftists and were imprisoned in the past,” he said. “Most of them became regime supporters. I participated in pamphleteering in Alawite neighbourhoods, but this was really terrifying. We were not afraid of the security patrols or the popular committees. We knew how to avoid them. We were actually afraid of the residents who would catch us themselves if we were exposed,” he explained.
“Most Alawites believe that this is a Sunni uprising that targets the ousting of the Alawite president’s as well as isolating the Alawite community generally,” Jihad added. “They think that only he can protect them, and this belief was further entrenched with the rise of Islamists among the ranks of the opposition.”