In A Pro-Assad Stronghold, Security Comes At A Heavy Price : Parallels The city is known as "Mother of the Martyrs" due to its high number of pro-regime fighters who've died in the years of war. Most who live here are Alawite Muslims, as is President Bashar Assad.
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In A Pro-Assad Stronghold, Security Comes At A Heavy Price

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In A Pro-Assad Stronghold, Security Comes At A Heavy Price

In A Pro-Assad Stronghold, Security Comes At A Heavy Price

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in Syria's civil war. Many of the victims are civilians targeted by government forces. The U.S. and other Western countries have condemned President Bashar al-Assad's regime for that. But Syrians loyal to Assad have also paid a price. NPR's Alice Fordham found that out when she visited a government stronghold in Syria.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: You can tell the coastal city of Tartus is on the side of the government because everything here is intact. Little waves lap at rocks on a wide, quiet sea front with cafes dotted along it. It stands in vivid contrast to places where protests against Assad morphed into an armed uprising. And in the subsequent fighting, great swaths of ancient cities were destroyed.

But just because civilians go about their lives in safety here doesn't mean they're unaffected by the war. Pasted up on walls are posters commemorating men who have died fighting for Assad - young and old, always in uniform, usually carrying a weapon. Some posters of faded with new ones bright and clear next to them, a reminder the war is nearly six years old. I meet a man who makes these posters.

He's called Lammah Jadeed.

LAMMAH JADEED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Of course my work has changed," he says. "All of life has changed." He used to make things like signs for cafes. But now he mostly makes posters of dead soldiers.

JADEED: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: At one point, he was making 10 or more a day. I ask if most families in Tartus have someone in the military.

JADEED: I think yes. That is because (foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: He calls the city (foreign language spoken), the mother of the martyrs. Officials say proportional to the population, more men from Tartus have died fighting for Assad than from any other city. Some historical context can help explain why. Most people here are from the Alawite Muslim sect, like the president. For centuries, Alawites have been an embattled minority in Syria.

I meet Bassam Watfa, who's an expert on the history of this region.

BASSAM WATFA: (Through interpreter) Around the beginning of Ottoman rule, Sultan Selim exerted pressure on the Alawites and fought them, so those people left to the coastal mountains.

FORDHAM: Throughout the centuries when the Ottoman Empire controlled Syria, Alawites scratched out a living in harsh mountain conditions and had to pay a tax because they were not considered Muslims. This has not been forgotten.

WATFA: (Through interpreter) This hatred still exists to this day. The Ottomans still have this hatred.

FORDHAM: Many Alawites are still hostile to modern Turkey, which is what the Ottoman Empire became. In today's war, Turkey sides with Syrian rebels. And Alawites continued to be marginalized for centuries until the 1940s when a new politician emerged who rose to be president, Hafez al-Assad, an Alawite from the coast. And finally, the minority felt incorporated into Syria.

WATFA: (Through interpreter) Let's say the situation improved greatly. Roads were made, schools were opened and all basic services came to this area.

FORDHAM: Watfa won't talk about today's war anymore. Actually, he's discouraged from doing so by a man who joins us for the interview, whom I presume is a security official. But certainly many here are keen to say that Tartus will fight to the last man or woman. I meet a mother and father who lost two sons in the space of four months earlier this year. And they're not alone in their agony.

HUSSEIN AL-IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Our neighbor over here, our neighbor over there," says the father Hussein al-Ibrahim. "The building over that way and in the apartment down from this one, all of them have a martyr."

AL-IBRAHIM: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Every house."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: And yet, they say, the numbers of dead and injured here are dwindling. They say this is thanks to Assad's allies, which include Russia and Iran. Syria's war could be lurching painfully toward a close. Assad's forces are now battling toward victory in the city of Aleppo and negotiating surrenders with rebels they've besieged outside the capital. The end can't come soon enough for the people in Tartus.

Even in this bastion of Assad support, it's reported that sometimes people hold demonstrations at military funerals, protesting the numbers of men they've had to give. I don't know if that's true. My request to attend one was denied. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Tartus.

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