News / Middle East

Amid Civil War, Syrian Port Prospers Under Assad's Protection

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally in the northern port city of Tartous, Jan. 12, 2012.
Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad attend a rally in the northern port city of Tartous, Jan. 12, 2012.
Reuters
This once sleepy Syrian port now buzzes with shoppers milling about crowded market places. Lines of cars wait patiently at traffic lights - a rare mark of order in a country where most cities have erupted into street wars.

Tartous remains an island of calm - for now. And with a ring of army checkpoints carefully guarding its outskirts, it is florishing amid Syria's destruction.

That is partly because the city is home to many Alawites, the minority sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, and which now feels threatened by an uprising against him led by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

Tartous not only is a haven for thousands of civilians fleeing violence, but a magnet for merchants who want to keep business flowing in what they view as only a temporary home.

"Tartous is living its golden days in terms of business, and if a merchant is clever he has an opportunity he can exploit," said Samer, a shoe salesman who closed up shop in the central city of Homs a year ago and moved his family to Tartous.

While many worry about the port's long-term future, they are eager to do business now while they plan a more permanent move.

"I will not stay here too long. I am just trying to sell off the goods I have and then leave, probably to Egypt," said Abu Ahmed, a Sunni importer of Chinese school supplies.

The Mediterranean city has swelled to about 1.6 million from an original population of 938,000, according to residents' estimates.

Assad's portraits hang in the streets and there are few signs of the rebellion that is tearing the rest of the country apart, other than pictures of young men who have died fighting for the Syrian leader.

Fuel stop

Locals say the influx of businesses to Tartous soared after August 2012, when rebels moved into Aleppo, Syria's largest city, and opened up a new battlefront that is now mired in a bloody stalemate.

Aleppo has a large population of wealthy Sunni merchants, such as Abu Ahmed, who moved here soon after the fighting began.

Local tradesmen say some recently enacted laws have made it easier for shop and factory owners to move their equipment to safer cities. They believe the measures were meant to channel business to Tartous and encourage Sunni merchants to move there.

"It seems as if the government is saying to the rich Sunnis, come to the coast. But to the poor Sunnis, get out of Syria and go be a refugee,'' said Amir, a Christian salesman from Tartous.

Northern Aleppo, Syria's business hub, has been paralyzed by devastating street battles and air raids. Much of central Homs, once a regional center of commerce, has been flattened by more than a year of fighting. And Hama, another center of industry, is isolated by the turmoil.

Aside from military protection, Tartous has access to the outside world through its port, where fuel, grain and other supplies arrive in bulk.

"One man's misfortune is another man's gain," Amir said.  "There is no other area to buy fuel than Tartous... so the car owners come to fill their tanks, and since they've come all this way, they might as well buy all their other needs."

Cashpoints for state employees to withdraw their salaries only work now in Tartous and the capital Damascus, to the south. Private banks and insurance companies also have relocated here.

The port also is home to a Russian naval facility, Russia's only military base outside the former Soviet Union and a symbol of decades-old ties between Moscow and the Assad ruling dynasty. Russia continues to supply Assad with military equipment as he battles the uprising.      

Instability pervails

While many small and medium-sized businesses are taking advantage of the opportunity here, they are aware it may not last. They worry the crisis in the rest of the country eventually will hit Tartous.

Bigger merchants with more assets have already moved their businesses to places they hope will be stable over the longer term, such as Turkey, Dubai, Kurdish northern Iraq, Egypt and even Lebanon.

"There is no guarantee this will stay stable," said businessman Amir. "You never know; overnight the problems the rest of Syria have faced could arrive here."

Smaller businesses are reluctant to buy property in Tartous, and this has helped pushed rental rates for homes and businesses to triple pre-conflict prices.

New housing or building projects are a rarity. Construction supplies are now expensive. And for many in Tartous, there is a nagging fear that it is only a matter of time before the crisis engulfing the rest of country arrives.

Each night, shopkeepers say, a local businessman sends out his fleet of taxis with men to patrol the streets for signs of trouble, and hand any suspicious people to the secret police.

Locals make clear that while they are open to any group moving in for business, criticism of Assad is not tolerated.

"The people of Tartous are ready to help their guests as long as they are civilized and don't cause problems by talking about our leader or the army," said one Alawite businessman, who declined to be named.

"Tartous has offered many, many martyrs for the country. We're not prepared to listen to anything that would hurt the mothers of our martyrs," he said.

You May Like

Sydney Hostage-taker Failed to Manipulate Social Media

Gunman forced captives to use personal Facebook, YouTube accounts to issue his demands; online community helped flag messages, urged others not to share them More

UN Seeks $8.4 Billion to Help War-Hit Syrians

Effort aimed at helping Syrians displaced within their own country and those who've fled to neighboring ones More

Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

It's an umbrella group of militant organizations whose objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan 'whether through peace or war' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Putin: Russian Economy to Rebound in 2 Yearsi
X
December 18, 2014 5:13 PM
Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, tackling questions on the Russian economy, the crisis in Ukraine and Russian relations with the west. VOA's Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Putin: Russian Economy to Rebound in 2 Years

Russian President Vladimir Putin held his annual end-of-the-year news conference Thursday, tackling questions on the Russian economy, the crisis in Ukraine and Russian relations with the west. VOA's Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Detained Turkish Journalists Follow Teachings of US-Based Preacher

The Turkish government’s jailing of critical journalists has sparked international condemnation and is being seen as an effort to undermine the followers of an ailing Turkish preacher based in the United States. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Will Pakistan School Shooting Galvanize Pakistan Against Extremism?

The attack on a military school in Pakistan’s northwest city of Peshawar left 141 dead, including 132 children. Strong statements of condemnation poured in from across the world. The country announced three days of mourning, and the leadership, both political and military, promised retribution. VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem looks at how likely the Pakistani government is to clamp down on all extremist groups.
Video

Video ‘Anti-Islamization’ Marches Increase Tensions In Germany

Anti-immigrant rallies in Germany have been building in recent weeks, peaking Monday night in the city of Dresden where tens of thousands of people turned out to demonstrate against what they call the ‘Islamization’ of the West. Germany has offered asylum to more Syrian refugees than any other country, and this appears to have set off the protests. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.
Video

Video Refugees Living in Kenya Long for Peace in the Home Countries

Kenya is host to numerous refugees seeking safe haven from conflict. Immigrants from Somalia face challenges in their new lives in Kenya. Ahead of International Migrants Day (December 18) Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video Turkey's Authoritarianism Dismays Western Allies

The Turkish government has been defiant in the face of criticism at home and abroad for its raids targeting opposition media. The European Union on Monday expressed dismay after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Brussels for criticizing his government's action. Turkey's bid to be considered for EU membership has been on hold while critics accuse the NATO ally of increasingly authoritarian rule. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid