Damascus chaos strikes fear in Assad's Alawite bastion
TARTOUS, Syria (Reuters) - Sunbathing and drinking at bars, men and women lived in a bubble on Syria's Mediterranean coast. They refused to believe their country was collapsing into chaos. Until now.
A stunning bomb attack in Syria's capital this week that killed four from President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle has shaken the faith of Alawite supporters in his ability to stave off an armed rebellion that has now encroached on Damascus.
In Tartous, an Alawite stronghold on the Mediterranean seaside, many now worry their Alawite president will be unable to secure the fate of his 12 percent minority community.
For the first time since the start of the 16-month-old revolt against Assad, led mainly by Syria's majority Sunni Muslims, the shops of Tartous were shuttered. At work and at home, people were glued to state television.
"We don't understand what is happening. Maybe Bashar will flee and leave us to face what's next. That's what we're thinking. The trust is gone," said Umm Baha, a mother of four.
Some Alawites have joined the revolt. But most back Assad. There are staunch supporters, and those who begrudgingly accept him as protector, fearing Sunni sectarian retribution.
Tartous is 90 km (56 miles) west of Homs, the bloody epicenter of the revolt, and 250 km (155 miles) north of Damascus, still smoking from days of shelling.
Just days before the Damascus flare-up, many Alawites insisted foreign media was lying about the conflict.
On the stone cornice that curves around boats bobbing in the harbor, a young woman sitting at a cafe told a reporter last week: "There is no revolt. I heard the stories of refugees from Homs but I don't believe them. Half of it is lies."
On Friday, Syrian state television switched between video of army drills and a loop that showed the bloodstained, bullet-riddled bodies of "terrorists" killed in Assad's campaign to rout rebels from Damascus.
Instead of winning hearts and minds, young Alawites like Hani, 29, say their faith in official media has been shattered.
"Syrian media are trying to fabricate facts, but now people feel the regime cannot pick itself up again," he said. "There is fear in people's eyes... They still want to convince themselves, by watching Syrian TV. We are looking for good news, to forget."
STATE OF DENIAL
For months before, Tartous had been a tourism and party scene for Alawites and Syrian elites seeking an escape from the unrest and uncertainty gripping the rest of the country.
Opposition activists say more than 17,000 have died from violence ranging from bombardments by security forces to sectarian killings.
Tartous, like many Alawite areas, is more liberal than Syria's majority Sunni provinces. Women wear skimpy bathing suits on sandy beaches. Restaurants are stocked with alcohol.
Russia, one of Assad's last remaining allies, retains its last warm water port in Tartous. These days, few ships go in and out of the walled base since Western states imposed punitive economic sanctions to pressure Assad to leave.
Long-time residents estimate that nearly half of Syria's entire Alawite population has relocated to Tartous province since the uprising started. Finding an apartment in the city that swelled from 900,000 to 1.2 million inhabitants is now a matter of luck, real estate agents say.
Private homes once thudded with music late into the night. Young men and women giggled and smoked water pipes at cafes with a sea view. More chic restaurants with flowers and white tablecloths opened monthly.
But banners put up by enthusiastic residents some months ago suddenly seem stale. "Bashar don't worry, your people will drink blood for you," some said. "Assad forever," others said.
Passersby on the cornice were not convinced by new banners posted by local officials on Friday to celebrate Russia and China's latest veto at the United Nations of a Western-backed resolution threatening more sanctions.
"We're sick of this. Their veto is supposed to mean we are not alone?" said 35-year-old Ibrahim. "It's not going to stop the (rebel) march toward Damascus. Maybe the coast will be next."
STRIKE TO THE CORE
The Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, was once a marginalized and impoverished people who took refuge in the coastal mountains.
When Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, came to power in 1970, the fortune of his Alawite community changed for the better. Many came to dominate Syria's elite, a trend that continued when Bashar took over upon his father's death in 2000.
It remains unclear if the fear that has eclipsed the mood of defiant confidence in Tartous will last or be a passing panic.
But more and more cars with Damascus plates are arriving, and Alawites from the shaken capital say the message is clear.
"The (bomb attack) was a strike to the core. If they were able to get to the inner circle, what else is there?" said Abu Ali, 48, a furniture salesman from Damascus, where rebels began battling the army in the capital this week.
The final straw for him was the attack on the National Security force building that killed Defence Minister Daoud Rajha, Assad's dreaded brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and two other high ranking security officials as they took part in a high-level security coordination meeting.
Few people in the capital heard the blast. Barely a wisp of smoke rose from the building. But to families like Abu Ali's, it was powerful enough to make him rethink 42 years of Alawite support for the Assad family rule.
"It doesn't seem to be in our interest," he said. "The regime is losing."
(This story was reported for Reuters by an independent journalist whose name is withheld for security reasons)
(Writing by Erika Solomon)
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