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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid