Syrian Alawites flee Sunni onslaught for coastal cities also populated by Russians, Iranians

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NICOSIA — Tens of thousands of Alawites have relocated to the coast
of Syria in what could form the basis of a minority state led by President
Bashar Assad.

Syrian opposition sources said Alawites were leaving major Syrian cities
including Damascus for the provinces of Latakia and Tartous.

Giant portraits of Bashar and Hafez Assad hang on a building in downtown Latakia. /DH Flood photo

The opposition said the Alawites, whose adherents include Assad, were relocating to towns along the Mediterranean Sea for protection against a Sunni onslaught.

“More and more Alawites are arriving every day,” an opposition source in Latakia said.

Latakia and Tartous also contain thousands of Iranians and Russians,
both of whom were aligned with Assad’s military. The sources said some 10,000 Russians, including advisers to the regime and their families, were in the coastal area amid the Sunni offensive in Damascus.

Tartous contains the only Russian Navy base outside Russia, and the
facility was said to be operated by more than 600 Russian personnel. The Russian Navy also was deployed in the smaller port of Latakia, which Moscow plans to expand.

The sources said Tartous has been flooded with Alawites and Christians
over the last six months. They said the population has risen from 900,000 to
1.2 million, sparking a major housing shortage. Both Latakia and Tartous,
however, were said to still contain a Sunni majority.

Western diplomats said Assad has been urged to establish
an Alawite-led state along the Mediterranean. As early as January,
former Syrian Vice President Abdul Khalim Khaddam, who defected in 2005,
maintained that his former boss was preparing a safe haven.

“He wants to install himself in Latakia,” Khaddam told the French daily
Le Figaro. “I am sure there are enough underground shelters where he and his
clan could withdraw.”

But a leading U.S. analyst on Syria, Joshua Landis, said Assad would be
unable to maintain a viable Alawite entity. Landis, a professor at the
University of Kansas, said such a state could not be defended against any Sunni regime
in Damascus.

“Who ever owns Damascus and the central state will own the rest of Syria
in short order,” Landis said. “They will have the money, they will have
legitimacy, and they will have international support. Syria could not
survive without the coast.”

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