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

Australia-Cambodia Resettlement Agreement Raises Concerns

Agreement calls for Cambodia to accept refugees in return for $35 million in aid and reflects Australia’s harder line approach towards asylum seekers and refugees More

India Looks to Become Arms Supplier Instead of Buyer

US hopes India can become alternative to China for countries looking to buy weapons, but experts question growth potential of Indian arms industry More

Earth Day Concert, Rally Draws Thousands in Washington

President Obama also took up the issue Saturday in his weekly address, saying there 'no greater threat to our planet than climate change' More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs