1 Oct 2015

Tartus, the town where Syrians believe Putin should be king

The large, bearded man showing me the picture of his cousin, killed fighting for the Syrian government’s prolonged civil war, had a clear opinion of Russia’s air strikes in Syria.

“The Russians are our brothers, unlike some Arab countries,” he said. “We have wanted this for a long time and now it’s happening.”

His wife, cradling their two month old baby, showed me a picture of her nephew, also plastered on the “Martyrs’ Wall” in Tartus. Russian airstrikes, she hopes, will mark the beginning of the end of the war, a decisive blow against the enemies of President Bashar al Assad.

Tartus, holiday resort for Syria’s dwindling middle class, stronghold of President Assad’s Alawite sect and site of Russia’s Mediterranean naval base, is full of government supporters. At the souk, where many traders have been displaced from Aleppo and other cities, one man told me he saw President Putin as “a source of justice”, another that he should be called “rais” or King.

But an elderly man who said he used to work as a translator suggested that desperation was the driver of their enthusiasm. “If Satan came here to save us from those terrorists I’d welcome him,” he said.

People here believe that the Syrian army and its allies from Hizbollah, Iran and Russia are all that stand between them and annihilation. Certainly, the jihadis of the Islamic State would see them as worse than infidels because of the branch of Islam they profess.

It’s understandable that they make no distinction between IS and other rebel groups – opponents of Bashar al Assad who said they were fighting for secular democracy were crushed long ago, and such is the bitterness of this struggle no victor is likely to show mercy.

The Governor of Tartus, Safwan al Saada, told me that he sees the Russian air strikes as a turning point, He echoed President Putin’s mocking criticism of the US coalition against the Islamic State, known here by its Arabic acronym, Daesh.

“We can see that the Russians are determined to defeat Daesh and the terrorists, whereas by contrast we note that the Americans and their coalition don’t seem to have the same determination,” he said. “In the last year they said they were fighting terrorism but Daesh grew stronger not weaker, so we can say their coalition is not serious.”

What he means is that the Americans are not coordinating with the Syrian military when they mount air strikes against the Islamic State. President Putin has said that Assad should “compromise”, but Russia’s intervention seems designed to ensure that the Syrian President doesn’t have to cede any power. Certainly, in Tartus, they’re thinking not of negotiation but victory.

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