Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Local people describe it as a distant growl, an ever-present rumble, just to the north. A reminder that war is now at their doorstep.It has been this way for two months in Latakia. The port city had managed to ride out Syria’s civil war, seemingly content in the knowledge that whatever was happening in Hama to the south-east, or Idlib a little further north, an army stood between its gates and its foes. Not any more.
The spectre of war is now a reality here in the staunch core of the regime heartland, as much as it is in the rebellious and ravaged Sunni cities to the east. The shells that crunch most hours into the nearby countryside have not yet arrived. But the fear that pervades the communities on the fringes of Latakia is now spreading around the city known throughout the country as the government’s stronghold, and possibly its last redoubt.
“We are afraid, very, very afraid,” said Loubna, a final-year university student and resident of the city. “For so long the regime has been saying we will be safe here. That nothing will happen to us. Nothing can happen to us. But people are leaving, people are dying. Death is so near.”
As the insurgency has blazed into nearly every corner of Syria, Latakia has stood resolute as a distant and almost unobtainable target, protected by some of the Syrian military’s most formidable forces and diehard militias. Business still ticks over. With the engine room of the country’s ecomomy – Aleppo – having ground to a halt, Latakia has stepped partly into the breach, all the while remaining the playground of Syria’s wealthy elite and a refuge for its establishment.
President Bashar al-Assad has a palace on the coast and many of his generals keep villas here. Members of Syria’s fractured opposition, as well as western states calling for Assad to be ousted, often claim that Latakia will be a last redoubt for key regime figures and the Alawite sect, from which much of Syria’s power base is drawn.
Over the past two months, the influx of Alawites from the increasingly besieged villages to the north is slowly transforming the city into just such a sanctuary.
“The wolves are at the door,” said an Alawite refugee in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. “Even Qardaha is not safe any more.”
Qardaha is the ancestral home of the Assad family. It is where the late dictator and architect of Syria’s uncompromising social and military doctrine, Hafez al-Assad, is buried, in an immaculately kept shrine maintained by an honour guard. It was never supposed to be under threat of attack.
But 12km to the north, in the mountains of Jebel al-Krud, a giant plateau that soars above Latakia and Tartous to the south, rebel groups now have Qardaha in their sites.
The frontline of the war for the cultural plain, and regime’s heart, is several kilometres below them. Warplanes swarm here like mosquitoes. After dark, it is the helicopters’ turn to roam above the ink-black plateau, the distant whump of their rotor blades a harbinger of the spine-chilling terror that inevitably follows, in the form of large barrels of explosives pushed from their open doors.
“We can tell when they’re falling now,” said a young, almost nonchalant rebel who had returned from the frontline that carves jaggedly between lush green undergrowth and the crumbling remains of a grey concrete village. “They are bombing Salma [a frontline village] at the moment, because they think that the battle for Qardaha will be launched from there. We’re more interested in Latakia.”
So, too, are jihadist groups, first among them the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, who are now congregating around 20km north of Latakia and making plans to advance. “There are around 300-400 of them,” said a rebel commander in the hills not far away. “They have their eyes on the gold and jewellery stores. They are more interested in here than in Idlib, or Aleppo.”
Not all those under fire are seeking refuge in Latakia. Some families, the few that remain in the battleground villages of Jebel al-Krud, are trying to make their way north to Turkey. In one such village, the custodian of the town’s Orthodox church offered the Observer a tour of the ancient stone building that she so clearly cherished.
There was little in the way of an oral history, though. She slowly made her way to the centre of the church and, before she had spoken a word, broke down in tears of unrestrained grief. A Muslim neighbour offered her an arm of comfort, but her tears would not stop. Later, she said that her face had recently appeared on a US television network and that she could no longer travel to Latakia without fear of persecution. Falling foul of the regime is a constant dread among those on the move, and especially for those who stay behind.
Abu Yousef and his two sons have chosen to remain in their mixed Sunni-Christian village. They are one of only 10 families to do so. A church sits alongside a mosque here. Both have been damaged by shelling. “We hope it will work out, we really do,” he said as he stood on a hillside, Latakia around 20km behind him and the sound of a nearby battle reverberating. “It’s up to God. It’s out of our control.”
Conversations with Syria’s newest refugees are often snatched and guarded. Trust is hard won, if it’s obtained at all. Eyes are averted. Contact is perfunctory.
War has settled into an eerie rhythm in this part of Syria. While rebels are now at Latakia’s northern doorstep, an advance 20km south to the heart of the city will take significant planning and manpower, perhaps more than the rebel army, drawn largely from the rural poor, can muster.
An invasion in any sort of formation is well beyond the opposition army’s capabilities, even with a reorganisation of the fragmented leadership’s command into groups tasked with coordinating and acting strategically.
“It won’t be fast and it won’t be easy,” said a leader of the rebels’ military council, who not long ago owned large and lucrative quarries in the Idlib hinterland. His business interests have since been confiscated and he claimed to be as penniless as the defector sitting cross-legged on the barren floor next to him, a private in the Syrian army who fled his post in Jisr al-Shughour last month. “I don’t care what it takes,” the officer said. “As long as we beat al-Qaida to Latakia.”
In this room, a former Syrian army outpost, and in others like it in the northern countryside of Syria, the working theory is that Assad and his senior officials are keeping a corridor open to Latakia from the south-east – a line that traces the Alawite heartland of the country, past Hama, then Homs, and ending in Damascus.
“They are preparing for a worst-case scenario,” one rebel offered as an explanation. “If it goes badly for the Alawites, they will want a country of their own.”
“Do you think it’s going badly for them?” another man asked. “This is going to continue for another year. They will wear us down.”
Another man joined in, struggling to be heard above a now increasing din of voices. “Another year, we’ll all be dead. That is too much. May God punish Bashar and all his family.”
The conversation was now drowned by shouting. Goals and realities seemed almost irreconcilable at this point in the group’s battle planning. There seems little way forward except more of the same grinding, miserable suffering that has come to characterise the war in the north.
“But we must get it together. We just must,” the rebel leader finally piped up. “You in the west ask us why it is going like this and then you refuse to help us. Latakia is a price worth paying. There is no way Bashar can win the war if he loses there.”
We spoke by phone to a merchant in Latakia on Saturday. He runs restaurants on the coastline and an import business through the nearby port. “Jet skis are on the ocean and people are smoking [water pipes],” he said. “Yes, there are planes and bombs in the distance. But for now it’s our new reality. We are getting used to it. If they get any closer, we’ll leave.”
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