Posted on September 30, 2013

Syria: Lattakia transformed

by Bahar Sahlawi



Lattakia is a region transformed. Once it was a place for Syrians to visit for leisure: to enjoy the blue waters of the Mediterranean, to hike in the hills and forests. The coastal mountain range, running parallel to the plain, is fertile and covered with citrus and olive groves. Fresh produce comes to the city from the network of villages which surround it. It is often reported as Syria’s ‘Alawite’ region but it is also home to Christians, to Sunni Arabs, to Turkmens, and to Murshidiya. Now it is a place where internally displaced Syrians have sought refuge from the intense fighting and from which Lattakia has so far been spared.

It has not seen the level of violence and brutality which has scarred and devastated large parts of the country – particularly where the regime is not in control. Most of the coastal plain, the governorates of Latakia and Tartus, are under regime control. There have been clashes recently in Slunfay, east of Lattakia. Latakkia itself is still functioning as well as can be expected in a country at war but the conflict is present in the daily lives of residents. The region’s economy has changed along with its demography. So too have the perspectives of the people living there towards the revolution and to the regime. Many voiced scepticism towards the revolution and preferred the regime – the devil they know – to an unknown alternative: being ruled by rebel groups with dubious foreign backing. Western military intervention is not welcome here, nor can it do any good for its residents.


A changing landscape

The revolution did not take root here as it did elsewhere in the country. This is partly because people here were, and still are, more sceptical of the revolution than elsewhere. There is also a higher concentration of regime security actors in the city. Neighbourhoods, like Slaybeh, which were sites of large protests early on in the revolution were subjected to heavy harassment from security forces. Just as in many other parts of Syria, the protesters have been arrested, killed, or have decided to leave the country to evade the regime.

Evading the regime has become harder in areas under its control because there is a noticeably heavier security presence compared to pre-2011 standards, and the standards of the early months of the revolution when security presence was bolstered up. Regime checkpoints are prevalent inside the city and on the roads leading into it. Identity cards are checked against wanted lists and cars are searched for weapons. Concrete blast barriers and heavily armed soldiers are in place in front of government buildings. Roads close to the most sensitive sites have been blocked off to traffic, causing congestion in other parts of the city. Journey times within the city and along the coastal regions of Syria have increased as a result of checkpoints. They are either manned by Syrian Army conscripts or by the Lujaan Sha’biya: the Popular Committees. Locals prefer the army checkpoints because the soldiers are polite and there is more predictability. As one told me: “you don’t know what might happen their checkpoints. They are usually fine but if one of them is bad they can make problems for you. If you disappear there may not be a trace of you, it’s not like an army checkpoint.” The Popular Committees consist of volunteers with weapons who are less accountable and less predictable than conscript soldiers.

Checkpoints represent a tool to directly control the population but also to reinforce the sense of its dominant presence. They represent a performance of control as well as a reality. They fortify the regime’s presence as well as its control. In this respect the checkpoints are backed up by images of the president with laudatory slogans. They are greater in number than they were before the revolution began, and greater than when they increased in its early months. In rebel-held areas these images have been destroyed or defaced and therefore they also constitute markers of territory.

While some feel reassured by the checkpoints others know that they are also a way for soldiers to extract money from those passing through them. Conscripts and Popular Committee members are poorly paid for monotonous work which puts them at risk of attack and which takes place outdoors in hot and humid weather. A woman from Latakkia told me that her cousin had joined the Popular Committees: “He only receives 4000SP ($20) a month and is not fed well. The higher level officers take their supplies and sell them for profit.” Vehicles carrying goods are most susceptible to demands for bribes. A trader knows that if payments are not made a vehicle may be slowly and thoroughly searched at every checkpoint, causing a costly delay to the delivery of goods and food items to spoil. An aid worker noted something more worrying: “If you pay enough money, you can buy some of the soldiers at a checkpoint and they will pretend to search a vehicle and let it pass, even if its carrying weapons hidden among aid supplies”.

Conscript soldiers and their families are paying a heavy price in the war. Inside the city posters honouring the young men killed in the fighting proliferate and are stuck to walls and bus shelters. They sit uneasily with government posters sending messages about keeping the environment clean and litter in the bins. Perhaps an attempt to create a sense of normality in a time of crisis or a symptom of denial. Photographs of these men in their uniforms accompany the notices – they have faces of late teenagers. In Alawite villages these notices are so prominent that one gets the impression that every family in the village has lost a son in the fighting.

On days of intense combat in rural Lattakia, ambulance sirens are heard as the dead and wounded are transported to the city’s military hospital. A soldier’s death is announced with a double gunshot fired into the air. To families and many locals the soldiers are martyrs. To those opposing the regime they are Assad’s dogs. By many people here, the fighters on the other side are seen as terrorists and traitors implementing a foreign conspiracy against Syria. The tragedy is that those killed on both sides once sipped tea and matte together, friendship was in the place of today’s fighting.

The city appears to be functioning but there are signs of conflict and decay. Litter is piling up in some parts of the city: collections continue but are less frequent. Power cut times have returned to 12 hours per day in three four-hour periods. For a time they were reduced to two such periods. Generators rumble across the city, mostly used by businesses. Smaller generators can be spotted on residential balconies but they are not affordable to all. Traffic police are fewer in number, inviting drivers to drive through red lights and into disorderly parking habits. The population has increased because of the influx of internally displaced Syrians. The absence of traffic police makes the increase in traffic more disruptive and therefore more noticeable.


Aleppo comes to Lattakia

The demographic changes are noticeable on a stroll through the city’s main commercial district. Syrians from Aleppo and as far as Deir Azzor are noticeable from their different accents and styles of dress. Those from Aleppo are greater in number by far. Some locals say there are 750,000 internally displaced Syrians in Lattakia. We do not have accurate figures but their presence is felt. Aleppines are well known for their work-ethic and deft business sense. Those with capital have established successful businesses in the city. Some have paid large advances to secure rental properties in Latakkia and landlords have taken advantage of others with hikes in rent. The Aleppines here are predominantly Sunni but are allowed to settle here, to work and trade without harassment. Like the city’s other Sunnis they continue to pray in their mosques without feeling the need to hide their identity. It is not the case that only Alawites and Christians can be comfortable in regime areas. The conflict is still essentially a political one and those who do not constitute a perceived threat to the regime can live relatively undisturbed by it. The sectarian lens is the preferred optic of lazy analysis and strife-rousing agendas. It also hides more than it reveals. Collective punishment is taking place in Syria but relates to regions or perceived loyalty and threat more than to confessional association.

Lattakia was more accustomed to tourists from Aleppo than to refugees but that has changed. Aleppines spent past summers on vacation in Lattakia’s coastal resort areas but since last year many are now living in small rented chalets by the sea. Aleppines are allowed to take refuge in Alawite areas. This allows the regime to show what is on offer in areas under its control: security from the air strikes, intense fighting, and criminality which plague rebel-held areas. In other words a regulation of violence, unlike in rebel-held areas where it has been deregulated. In rebel-held areas violence is widespread and unpredictable. It may come from the skies at any moment in the form of a shell, a barrel bomb, or a mortar. It may come from a kidnapping gang or an extremist group. In regime areas incidents of violence are more predictable, the sources are state-owned or controlled and one can assume that, most of the time, violence can be avoided by accepting regime control. It also means that displaced Aleppines live amidst a population whom the regime believes is loyal enough to report threatening behaviour.

On the coastal road north of Lattakia towards Al Shati’ Al Azraq, the Blue Coast, the Aleppines’ presence is felt. Many have set up street stalls selling all manner of wares. Further up the road is a stretch of chalets which are now occupied by Aleppine families from rural areas. The contrast with Lattakians is stark. The children of these new families are accustomed to working and to playing out much later in the street than Lattakian children are allowed to. Lattakians in this neighbourhood noted that Aleppines speak more loudly and shout and curse more often than Lattakians do. Most of the women, even the girls, cover their hair and give an impression of religious or social conservatism. They do not swim in bikinis like many Lattakian women but in their clothes and headscarves. Lattakian women worry that Aleppines will influence customs in the city in socially constraining ways, that they will eventually be under pressure to dress in ways more pleasing to conservative men. “They should become more like us, and not us more like them” said one Lattakian woman anxious about their presence.

“Do you fear them?” I asked a Latakkian man who lived among displaced Aleppines. “No, not at all. I feel sorry for them, what happened to their homes.” He empathised with their difficulties. A family of 19 lived in the apartment above his and this empathy helped him to tolerate the increase in noise and litter in his neighbourhood. Those who worried the most about Aleppines were not living amid them but their anxieties reflected prejudices of region and social class, as well as a genuine fear of social repression. People from Aleppo are perceived by other Syrians as more materialistic, acquisitive and ‘heavy blooded’: i.e. less agreeable and light hearted than other Syrians. The most visible Aleppines are working class. Combined with the regional stereo-types, it is easy to understand why middle-class Lattakians complain of their coarseness. Some go further: “Syrians from the coast are different to Syrians from the mainland. We descend from the ancient Phonecians, they descend from nomadic Bedouins” said an Alawite woman from the city. She implied that coastal Syrians had a more advanced cultural heritage. Whatever the social anxieties may be, the transfer of this commercially dynamic population has surely aided Lattakia’s economy. Accurate data is difficult to acquire but what is certain is that income from tourism has dried up and inflation has skyrocketed in the last year. Prices of goods are typically 400%-500% of 2010 prices. The dollar today fetches around 200 Syrian pounds compared to 45-50 in 2010. Locals complained about businesses increasing prices as soon as there is a rise in the dollar relative to the Syrian pound: “Some stores put their prices up within 10 minutes of the dollar going up but they never put them down when the dollar decreases. They are war profiteers, it’s not just the people selling guns.”


Fearful times, fearful attitudes

Alawites and Sunnis are becoming less comfortable in each other’s company. An Alawite woman said in sadness that: “They don’t go out in our areas anymore and visa versa.” They are spending less time socialising in each other’s perceived neighbourhoods. Many Alawites still stand against the Assad dynasty which has enriched a few families and cronies whilst oppressing them and many more of their compatriots. However, speaking to Alawites in Latakkia, one gets the impression that they fear being ruled by the armed groups who appear to have hijacked the revolution more than they fear the regime.

From the beginning of the protest movement the regime began a propaganda campaign to associate the revolution with chaos, instability and sectarianism. The intention was to sow fear into the minds of Syria’s religious minorities that regime change would lead to their persecution by an extremist Sunni Muslim theocracy. The posters which appeared in Lattakia in 2011 are still present. They contain slogans like “Freedom does not begin with sabotage and instability, it begins with stability and responsibility”. While these posters and slogans may not be taken seriously by all, the stories about the blood-curdling acts of armed rebels in nearby Alawite villages have succeeded in spreading fear into the minds of Lattakia’s Alawites. Fighting in villages close to the city, rebels took and then lost a group of Alawite villages. Stories about Alawites being forced to leave their homes spread like wild-fire. A story about a pregnant woman whose stomach was cut open by a fighter who killed her foetus before murdering her circulated in the city. A taxi driver told the same story.

There may be truth in these stories. Whatever the case may be, they are believed by many who distrust Saudi and Qatari backed armed groups enough to give these stories credibility. At the same time another story spread about Sheikh Badr, an Alawite cleric, who was abducted. An Alawite woman told me that he had been beheaded by his captors who had posted a video recording of the act on YouTube. Several days later the news spread that he had been beaten but not killed. Recently the elderly Shaikh Badr appeared on a YouTube clip with a banner behind him of a group calling itself Harakat Shaam Al Islam. Videos which terrify Latakia’s minorities are plentiful on YouTube: the execution in western Iraq of Syrian Alawi truck drivers by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), footage of the rebel soldier biting into the organ of a dead regime soldier, which he cuts out with a knife. Alawi and Christian women, even those against the regime, avoid entering rebel-held areas because they fear being kidnapped, raped, killed, or all three simply because of their identity. Their confessional association is identifiable – or rather assumed – from the name and town of origin printed on individual ID cards.

The horror stories were part of the dossier of evidence which Alawites formerly opposed to the regime now use as evidence to justify, to others and to themselves, their change of stance. An Alawite who was imprisoned by the regime in the past explained that he was “against the regime and would continue to oppose it after it has defeated the conspiracy against Syria.” Others relayed stories to discredit the peaceful protest movement in Latakia and Syria more generally. An elderly Alawite man said: “I stopped attending protests after hearing sectarian slogans against Alawis.” Another dismissed the large numbers which the opposition claimed attended anti-regime rallies in Latakia and Hama. They had seen the worst side of the regime but feared the alternative would cost them their lives. One reading is that they are individuals who fear losing their privileged position under a new political order. Another is that they also needed to believe that the alternative to the regime was more brutal, for their own conscience’s sake. These Alawites are not alone in their scepticism of the revolution. Young Sunni men opposed to the regime preferred it to what was on offer in Aleppo: the story of a young boy whose tongue was cut out because he was not fasting during Ramadan has circulated in rebel and regime areas. One such man, a conscript in the Syrian Army said: “The revolution is not what it was originally about anymore. Let them have their state, we will have our coastal state with Damascus, they can have the rest”.


‘Security’ state

What has not changed is the presence of Al Emin, ‘security’ forces, and the need to get permission from them to do almost anything. In the Ramel neighbourhood of Latakia in which impoverished Syrians and Palestinian refugees live, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is working with displaced Syrians from other provinces who now reside there. It is an area which strongly opposes the regime and was the site of peaceful protests and later intense armed conflict. Its narrow streets were shelled by the Syrian Army and access to it is heavily restricted. Volunteers who wish to aid displaced Syrians there can only do so if they have security cover, namely if they are working under the aegis of SARC. Syrians in Latakia who wish to set up their own aid organisations – Jamiya Khayria – need security clearance and this can only be achieved through a very powerful wasta, a connection which most do not have.


What next?

Latakians are very fearful for the near and distant future and this has been compounded by the recent threats of Western military intervention. The expectations of an imminent American attack heightened their fears and panic purchases of bread and other food items were taking place. Military and security sites are located in residential areas putting homes and families in the cross-hairs. If an attack does take place there are few areas of refuge for Syrians living on the coast. Rural Latakia is not deemed to be a secure place, partly because of potential targets based there and partly because of the recent fighting which took place for control of the villages. It has become extremely difficult to safely leave Syria for residents on the coast. Turkey has closed the crossing at Kasab meaning that rebel-held checkpoints must be crossed in order to enter Turkey. The other alternatives to reach Turkey are by air and sea: both expensive and infrequent. Lebanon has reportedly imposed restrictions on entry for Syrians who cannot prove they are only crossing Lebanon for transit purposes.

The world’s leaders only seem interested in geopolitical goals, they are disinterested in the human side of the conflict. Fear about the future grips the people on the coastal plains, residents and refugees alike. Even Turkey, which has opened its doors to Syrians crossing from rebel-held areas, has closed the door to Syrians from the coast. Lattakians are hoping for a political solution so that they may be spared the ravages of the conflict seen elsewhere. One young man, against the regime but equally fearful of the alternative told me: “There has to be a political agreement – it is the only way.”  Let us hope that the regime and its supporters will realise this too.