Latakia's lament

Once a model of ethnic tolerance, Syria’s coastal province is in a revolution that no one wanted

latakia's lament 521 (photo credit: ABU AL-HASSAN / SHAAM NEWS NETWORK / REUTERS)
latakia's lament 521
The village of Salma, 800 meters above the Syrian coast, seems a highland paradise.
Panoramic views of the snowcapped Kurdish Mountains compete with vistas of the boundless Mediterranean Sea below. Eight hundred years ago, the Crusaders built castles here, extolling the region’s virtues over copious cups of wine grown in the vineyards below.
Today, however, the lightly toned crimson liquid that cheered men’s souls has given way to a thicker, ruddy fluid that is filling Salma and the hamlets around it – rivers of blood.
As the Syrian revolution turns the page on its second year, rebels have brought the fight to the regime’s stronghold in the coastal province of Latakia. Though most residents of the province have fled, the weak and infirm who remain cannot mask their anger toward those who liberated them. They paint an idyllic life shattered by a revolution they neither clamored for, nor supported.
Syria is a patchwork of minorities long held together by their common fear that violence could tear apart the country. The Sunni Arabs who rule most of the region make up 70 percent of the population. But an obscure Shi’a sect known as the Alawis controls the country, having taken over as part of a larger military junta in 1963. They account for 12 percent of the population, while Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent) and Druze (3 percent) add ethnic and religious elements that make Syria the most multicultural country in the Middle East.
Many of these groups come together in the coastal province of Latakia, which borders Turkey. Alawis make up about 65 percent of the Latakia population, and Christians another 10 percent, leaving the Sunnis, who predominate in the rest of the country, only a small minority. The province constitutes the Alawi heartland and the ancestral home of President Bashar Assad, whose father, Hafez, is buried in the small village of Qardaha.
Because so many of Syria’s rulers hail from Latakia, for decades the government patronized the province with infrastructure projects and industrial ventures. The impoverished area that once was the country’s most destitute boomed overnight, with highways and villages connected to the electricity grid. Such investment and patronage won the non-Alawi population over to the government and accounts for its suspicions towards the rebels who want to topple it.
Nowhere is this truer than in Salma.
Those who remain there pine for the tranquility that reigned before protests erupted in March 2011.
Hamdi al-Haddad, 73, gazes contemptuously at rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who have taken over the village.
“They ruined everything,” the retired electrician scowls. “We can’t go anywhere, the bombs fall all day and the squatters have taken over.”
Though bombs rain down on Salma daily, and dodging snipers is a deadly ordeal, al- Haddad does not blame the regime. Instead, he says, it is the FSA fighters who should be censured. “We had a good life before they came,” he says.
Al-Haddad and others claim the FSA brigades in the village are imports from the neighboring provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, where the rebels have made gains. “I don’t see local boys in their ranks, and they don’t seem to know the names of the villages too well.”
The Assa d regime, however, is not discriminating between locals and imported fighters. Warplanes, helicopters, artillery guns and tanks frequently target the village and have transformed much of it into rubble.
The faucets no longer spew out water and electricity is a luxury of the past.
Samir Shawqi, for his part, just wants to be able to see his old friends from neighboring villages who fled. The 68-year-old retired truck driver used to visit the Alawi village of Kafriyya four miles away to see colleagues with whom he traversed the Arabian peninsula, delivering goods from Syrian ports. His company’s owner was an Alawi whose family was from Kafriyya and who drew on the surrounding villages to run his trucks. “We would drink tea for hours and talk about our families,” Shawi relates. “But now, everyone is gone.”
Kafriyya is indeed empty. The small village and its 1,000 residents fled to more secure areas, far from the FSA. The skeletons of charred buildings are all that remain of what was once a glittery main thoroughfare.
And though the houses have been pillaged, the rebels have left residents a memento of their visit. “We will feast on your blood like dogs, Alawi heretics,” reads graffiti on a wall.
FSA commanders try to play down the ransacking of Kafriyya. “The regime was using these villages to attack us, to attack the civilians,” explains Khalid Tariq, a 31-year-old rebel leader. “Our forces tried to suppress this rage, but some fighters could not be controlled.”
Privately, though, many FSA fighters blame Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) for fomenting sectarian hatred and targeting people for merely being Alawis. The jihadist group, a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq, has brought in hundreds of foreign fighters who have no goal other than killing regime soldiers and those who support them. The professed FSA objectives of creating a stable and prosperous state while containing sectarian tensions do not impress JN.
While villages and towns in the neighboring provinces are almost exclusively Sunni, Christian or Alawi, Latakia is unique in that different ethnic groups live side by side. Even small villages have mixed populations.
Such diversity created an atmosphere in which tolerance and acceptance prevailed. Today, that inter-religious harmony is being shattered by groups like JN.
When JN fighters swept into the village of Bayt Swalha, residents were scared; the mixed Alawi-Sunni village was not prepared for the group’s extremism. “They told us the Alawis had to die,” relates Faris Taysar, a 64-year-old Sunni, in horror.
“They wanted us to tell them where they were.”
When press ed for more details, Taysar prefers to talk about the halcyon days before the FSA took up arms and shattered his paradise. “We never had problems with Alawis here,” the retired oil worker says.
“The government was good to us. We had jobs. Why do we need a revolution that only brings death and hardship? Let them take their revolution to their villages.”
The FSA has pleaded with locals to mute their criticism of JN when talking with foreigners. “It’s not good for people to talk like that,” says a fighter who only gives his name as Abu Jarif. “It gives the revolution a bad name.”
Privately though, FSA rebels are just as vexed with JN as the locals. “We fight to overthrow a despotic government,” explains a commander known as Abu al-Ansari.
“But the JN have all kinds of ulterior motives that drive them. This is no way to manage a revolution. It will only create more complaints.”
Locals have a litany of grievances, but mostly they simply want the war to end.
The constant shelling in rural hills, where the night sky and its stars were always visible, has left people exhausted. Others are angry because they have nothing to eat but canned food with Turkish labels.
Like many in the villages here, Umar Ziyad, 59, of Salma, believes the revolution was a foreign conspiracy to destabilize Syria and turn it into a Western vassal.
“The Saudis and Qataris created JN because they were angry with Assad. He was too strong for them, too independent.”
One village where residents rue the day JN fighters came to Latakia is Burj al- Khashab. The Christian community there long viewed the Alawi regime as a bulwark against the Islamism that has taken over the Middle East. Many heard stories from Iraqi Christians who fled the fighting there.
Today, the village is empty. Most of its residents fled to the city of Latakia. A few families, however, ventured to Turkey, where they curse the revolution and its leaders. “Who will protect us now?” asks 53-year-old Mikhail Khouri in the city of Killis, within view of his homeland. “The Sunnis are the majority; the Alawis have their guns; only the Christians have no one.”
Khouri relates that with no benefactors, Christians have been extorted for money by both sides. “We are too weak to protect ourselves. This is a war we will lose,” he says. Others tell of Christian goldsmiths and jewelers who were robbed by bandits and rogue FSA units that have feasted on the instability the revolution has caused.
“Fear. Robbery. Destruction. Those are the key words of this revolution,” Khouri says.
Al-Haddad, the electrician from Salma has one more – squatters. Sunnis fleeing Alawi areas have sought refuge in villages under FSA like his. But having escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, they are often penniless and reliant on hard-pressed locals to feed and shelter them. “We don’t have enough food for ourselves,” al-Haddad complains. “How can we feed all these new mouths?” Aid organizations active in other parts of the country have been unable to reach the region. As a result, relief is only trickling in. Such hardships are just one more reason why locals in Latakia are turning on the rebels, who are becoming increasingly unpopular in the rest of the country, too. And, as they do, they long for a return to the communal harmony and peace they were stripped of by the FSA.