Assad loyalists could try to form new state in port city

TARTUS, Syria — Loyalists who support the government of President Bashar Assad are flocking to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, creating an overflowing boomtown far removed from the tangled, scorched rubble that now mars most Syrian cities.

There are no shellings or air raids to interrupt the daily calm. Families pack the cafes lining the town’s seaside ­corniche, usually abandoned in December to the salty winter winds. The real estate market is brisk. A small Russian naval base provides at least the impres­sion that salvation, if needed, is near.

Many of the new residents are members of the Alawite ­minority, the same Shi’ite sect to which Assad belongs. The latest influx is fleeing from ­Damascus, people who have ­decided that summer villas, however chilly, are preferable to the looming battle for the capital.


‘‘Going to Tartus is like going to a different country,’’ said a Syrian journalist who recently met residents there. ‘‘It feels ­totally unaffected and safe. The attitude is, ‘We are enjoying our lives while our army is fighting overseas.’’’

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If Damascus falls to the oppo­sition, Tartus could become the heart of an attempt to create a different country. Some expect that Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing an ­Alawite rump state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital.

There have been various signs of preparations.

This month, the governor of Tartus Province announced that ­experts were studying how to develop a tiny local airfield, now used by crop-dusters, into a full-fledged civilian airport ‘‘to boost transportation, business, travel, and tourism,’’ as the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported.

The announcement coincided with the first attacks on the Damascus airport, forcing it to close temporarily to international traffic.


If Assad fled to Tartus, he could seek protection from the Russian naval base there or flee aboard a Russian vessel. Russia announced Tuesday that it was sending a small flotilla toward Tartus, possibly to evacuate its citizens who live in Syria.

There is a precedent for a rump state. France, the colonial power in the region in the early 20th century, fostered an ­Alawite state from 1920 to 1936, but it eventually merged with what became an independent Syria.