In the Hills of Alawistan

In Syria’s beautiful northwest, all is peaceful. But death is never far away.


TARTOUS, Syria — Above the Syrian coastal town of Tartous, groups of Alawite men and boys were amassing at different landings along a road that winds higher and higher, away from the Mediterranean and into the hills. We saw them assembling as we traveled the same path, taking advantage of a day off to get out of the city.

On this new spring Sunday, they were waiting for the corpses of Alawite soldiers — conscripts in the Syrian Army — to arrive from below. A funeral procession was building, one motorcycle at a time, one open-cabbed truck at a time, each laden with several passengers. The mothers and wives were recognizable in their black clothes with sheer white scarves draped around their necks, which have become public uniform once a family has been anointed with loss.

Those gathering affixed to their cars large posters of the men and boys, showing the fallen still alive, posing in uniform or with a gun. Many were quite young, the tickle of mustaches below their noses not withstanding. A photo of President Bashar al-Assad, sporting sunglasses and military fatigues, often hovered above their images, assuming a posture of determination and leadership — his finger pointing to something in the horizon that we cannot see. Is it a goal, a future, a death?

Many of these soldiers died in places far away from where they grew up in these hills, which like the entire Tartous region is relatively peaceful — compared to the varying degrees of hell being experienced in other parts of the country. Throughout my several-day stay in April, there were no sounds of gunfire, shelling, or bombardments, sounds regularly heard in Damascus. We were protected by a bubble that we nonetheless knew a thousand pins — of revenge, reckoning, and reality — would one day burst.

Though home to Sunnis and Christians  as well, the coastal region and its peaks have become an Alawite stronghold. The Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Assad also hails, had escaped past religious persecution here. Once the lowest rung of society, their daughters had been maids in many Syrians’ homes and their sons had joined the armed forces for lack of other opportunities. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and the dictator before him, had come from their ranks, and when he seized power, the fortune of many — though hardly all — of the sect’s members improved. 

The Assads themselves come from nearby Qardaha, a village located above Latakia, which lies north of Tartous along the Mediterranean. Many have speculated that Bashar has kept the coastal regions and their hills secure should he need to beat a retreat from Damascus (or as a possible location for a future Alawite state should Syria end up in pieces). Indeed, before Israel’s raid outside the capital dominated all the headlines, disturbing allegations emerged of massacres of Sunnis in Banyas and al Bayda, areas that would be incorporated in any such Alawistan.

Though these hills are hardly exclusively Alawite, it is clearly Alawi territory. The few road signs here direct travelers to the tomb of Saleh al-Ali, an Alawite leader who opposed French rule in the 1920s. A statue of Ali graces the entrance to the village of Sheikh Badr, which sits along the ever-climbing road that reaches toward the site of pilgrimage for Alawites and the government officials who ceremoniously visit on Independence Day. He appears victorious cast in stone, a rifle raised high into the air. His triumph, however, is somewhat belied by disproportionately sized head and limbs that made him look cartoonish.

Here, the hills are verdant and gently terraced. A Damascene used to the barren embrace of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the Syrian capital, would easily be forgiven for feeling a tinge of envy. Yet for a region that was supposed to be protected and privileged, it is still remarkably underdeveloped. The modesty, if not poverty, of the homes was interrupted only rarely by a luxurious villa belonging to someone known to be close to the regime. The road was just enough to be functional.

Weren’t 40 years of Assad rule supposed to have made Alawites the best off in Syria? Weren’t they facing impending retaliatory massacre for having thrown in their lot with the sons of these hills?

Had they been swindled?

The legend of Saleh al-Ali shines a light on how the myth of Alawite privilege never quite corresponded to the reality. As a well-respected historian told me, Ali was a petty nationalist inflated into gigantic proportions by Syria’s first president, Shukri al-Quwatli. His goal was to give the Alawites an alternate hero after the government hung cult leader Suleiman al-Murshed, who had led an Alawite revolt against the newly independent state in 1946. 

Passing the statue, a woman from a village atop another hill shrugged, under her breath: "He used to steal chickens from my great-grandfather."

Further up the twisting road, each turn offering a view more stunning, we pulled over to take in a dramatic vista, joining several others in quiet reverie. With one’s back to the line of coffins coming up the road, the violence encircling Syria might as well have been in a different country. A patchwork of different shades of green — pine, olive, cypress, grass — and their different textures lit up each time the sun ventured from behind the several hanging clouds. Children were subdued, couples held hands, young men smoked cigarettes.

Of course, they people here want to protect this splendor and tranquility. But what had it cost Syria for this area to avoid the fate of the rest of the country? Did its survival necessitate the destruction of so many other places? What would it cost these hills once the misguided yet inevitable calls for vengeance and retribution pierced this bubble? Was it too late to alter this zero-sum formula by which Syria was being destroyed and re-imagined?

The breeze carried with it the scent of burning trash — the lack of effective government waste removal was another hint that this was hardly some lavish enclave of wealthy oligarchs. The air here was already several degrees colder than where we had begun our trip, at sea level. Its briskness and its smell hurried our return to the road.

Descending back to Tartous, the road — generally wide enough for a lane of traffic going each direction with room for passing — was overtaken by the funeral convoy that had caught up from below. The vehicles on our side pulled over to give way.

The women’s faces were contorted in pain as they walked next to a small white van carrying the bodies. Young men revved their motorcycles while keeping the slow pace, and the boys standing on the back of the bikes occasionally broke a smile before remembering the solemnity of the occasion.

A dissident — who happens to be Alawite and who had finally just been smuggled to safety in Beirut after being under virtual house arrest for the past year — explained to me that defecting for a member of his sect carries greater costs than for other Syrians. "A Sunni can escape to Turkey or to his home village; if he’s an Alawi, the regime will kill him and his family, or his own village will do it," he said. "He’s dead either way."

Armed checkpoints awaited us on our descent. Cars patiently queued, drivers obligingly rolling down their windows to present the ID cards of all the men (and the women, if asked) and popping the trunk when demanded. Some of the men who guarded these checkpoints worked for the regular army, while other belonged to local pro-regime militias. Some wore combat boots but others were in sneakers, loafers, or even flip-flops; several of their guns seemed held together by duct tape. Most had managed to find a pair of camouflaged pants and many wore what appeared to be newly minted black baseball caps with a Syrian flag motif, suggesting "Team Syria" had
just won a pennant somewhere.

Once these men waved a car along, the window was rolled back up, the trunk shut, and conversation or silence resumed. Except, of course, in those cases where the passengers once sufficiently out of earshot cursed the house, father, religion, mothers, sisters, or some combination thereof of the soldiers or shabiha (militiamen) to whom they had just submitted.

Closer to the water, groves of orange trees had blossomed and the air was perfumed — a scent Syrians bottle in mazahar (orange blossom water) and then use for sweets, drinks, and even on the skin. Before these years changed the meaning of every place in Syria, this fragrance was as essential to my memories of Tartous as freshly caught branzino and the languid life of a town by the sea.

We were waved through another checkpoint and entered Bseereh, an area where many residents of Tartous have waterfront flats. The road narrowed, lowering us to the level of the coast. Tall wetland grasses brushed against the car as we navigated our way. Any spare soil between the buildings was used to cultivate vegetables. Between the Mediterranean and us were the pastel-colored beachfront chalets that used to be full of beachgoers and fun-seekers in the summer months. They were now already crammed with Syrians from the provinces of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama who had fled the violence. Several hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have reportedly found shelter here. These Syrians are immediately identifiable by the locals — generally more conservatively dressed, with cars bearing license plates from other parts of the country.

At the shore, several of these displaced families had gathered. Women in full black abaya and hijab watched as excited children ran barefoot through the sand.

"They must be from Aleppo. It’s not yet warm enough to swim," said a young Tartous native, pointing to little boys wading in the water as it rocked against the sand.

Watching them as they jumped, splashed, and laughed in the sea, he added, "Let them enjoy it while they can."

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