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

Photogallery Pistorius Sentenced, Taken to Prison

Pistorius, convicted of culpable homicide in shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, will likely serve about 10 months of five-year sentence, before completing it under house arrest More

UN to Aid Central Africa in Polio Vaccinations

Synchronized vaccinations will be conducted after Cameroon reports a fifth case of the wild polio virus in its territory More

WHO: Ebola Vaccine Could Be in Use by January

WHO assistant director Dr. Marie Paule Kieny says clinical trials of Ebola vaccines are underway or planned in Europe, US and Africa More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid