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To Syria's loyalist stronghold of Tartus, victory seems imminent

TARTUS, Syria — War may be ravaging much of Syria, but there is no sign of conflict on bustling streets here, where diners wearing designer sunglasses order freshly caught fish at seaside cafes and gaze out on a palm-fringed expanse resembling a slightly tattered version of southern France or the Greek isles.

Absent are the rows of pulverized apartment blocks that mark parts of battleground cities like Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. But that doesn't mean this ancient port — once home to Phoenicians, Romans and Crusaders — hasn't suffered its share of losses.

Colorful posters displayed in street-side shrines and a "martyrs wall" near a busy bus stop commemorate the area's sons who have been killed fighting for the government of President Bashar Assad. More than 2,500 residents, most of them soldiers, have been killed in the two-year civil war, officials say.

"It's important to show that we appreciate their sacrifice," said Samer Ahmed, 29, an auto mechanic, closely scrutinizing the stylized images of the war dead for the faces of friends. "We all believe in the cause."

While many in the opposition regard the Assad government as a murderous clique intent on keeping power at all costs, this loyalist stronghold has long dispatched its native sons, including many from minority Alawite and Christian communities, to serve in Assad's military and security services.

As the government lost territory during the war, the Mediterranean coast was often mentioned as a fallback zone, and Tartus as the capital of a prospective mini-state dominated by Assad's Alawite religious sect. A Soviet-era Russian naval logistics base lies off the coast, representing the reassuring presence of a powerful ally.

The United States, which has long joined its allies in demanding that Assad step down, increased the pressure Thursday. The White House announced that it had concluded that Syria used chemical weapons in the fighting, and officials said the U.S. would start arming some rebel groups.

But officials here, including Gov. Nizar Moussa, a staunch Assad loyalist, scoff at the notion that anything but victory is imminent, a sense bolstered by recent advances against rebel forces.

"We are vanquishing and killing all the terrorists," he said, inviting visitors to sit in luxurious inlaid armchairs and share glasses of tea in his spacious office. "America should be thankful. These are the dregs of society; we are fighting people from the likes of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib," he said, referring to a pair of notorious U.S. lockups for terrorism suspects, one in Cuba and other in Iraq.

Support for the president appears unyielding here, even among the Sunni business elite that has long dominated commerce.

Sunni Muslims, the majority in Syria, are spearheading the revolt against Assad. In May, opposition activists accused pro-government forces of massacring more than 100 Sunni civilians in and around the refinery town of Baniyas, a half-hour drive to the north. The government said only that the army clashed with "terrorists," its standard term for armed rebels.

Most of the tens of thousands who have escaped to the coast from Syria's war zones are Sunnis, as well. In the tense atmosphere of today's Syria, everyone approached here seemed keen to express allegiance to the government, especially to a foreign journalist accompanied by a government minder.

"We should export the death to Obama that he sends to us," said an elderly matriarch from neighboring Homs province, with her family on a rocky outcrop near the corniche on a recent afternoon. She asked to be identified only by a nickname, Um Mohammed.

The highway west from Homs to the coast offers a distant glimpse of the celebrated Crac des Chevaliers, a mountaintop Crusader citadel that is now reportedly a rebel fortress. But the road itself was clear as the route ascended the so-called Alawite mountains and dropped down to the sea. The many checkpoints reflect the government's determination to maintain control of the strategic corridor from Damascus, the capital, to the coast.

In Tartus, there is no open talk of sectarianism, just a seemingly unshakable loyalty to a government viewed by many as a bulwark against a rebel onslaught heralding chaos and religious fanaticism.

"Why is America, the home of progressive secular democracy, on the side of people who want to send this country back to the 7th century?" asked Gov. Moussa.

Outside the governor's plush offices, black-clad women hovered in the corridor, seeking a word for their grievous plights. They are the war widows of Tartus.

"My husband was first kidnapped, then they executed him," said Huda Shahoud, an Alawite mother of five, recalling the death of Adil Fillara, 36, in the northern province of Idlib, where he was serving in the military.

Human rights groups have reported that Alawite soldiers often face execution when captured by Sunni insurgents.

Her husband, she said, was first reported abducted in January 2012. Rebels contacted relatives and demanded a ransom of about $100,000 — well out of the humble family's reach. Sporadic negotiations via cellphone continued, she said, until June, when her husband was reported dead. After his body was exhumed, she said, the autopsy showed that he probably had been executed with a bullet to his head a day or so after his capture, meaning the ransom demands were a sham.

"It has been hard for us, but I know the loss of my husband was not in vain," said Shahoud, accompanied by a young son on her sojourn to the governor's office. "He gave his life for the homeland."

Syrian authorities provide no official casualty figures, but almost everyone here seems to have lost a loved one or acquaintance. The widespread sense of mourning provides a singular window on the rising government toll and the ferocity of the fighting.

At a military hospital in Homs, 50 miles to the east, several wounded soldiers spoke openly of the intensity of the battle, acknowledging that their adversaries were well armed and skilled combatants.

"The armed groups were waiting for us, they knew we were coming," said Sgt. Ramzi Ahmad, 26, who has been recuperating from a leg wound since his unit was attacked Jan. 25 in Dariya, a southern suburb of Damascus.

On that morning, Ahmad said, his platoon of 30 men was proceeding down a street in three groups of 10 when rebels opened fire from nearby buildings. He says he lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital 12 hours later to a gruesome reality: He was the sole survivor.

"Not everyone merits martyrdom; maybe I wasn't good enough," said the soft-spoken Ahmad, speaking from his hospital bed. He said he plans to return to the front once he recovers. "I intend to avenge the death of my comrades."

In Tartus, mounds of freshly turned earth dot the "martyrs cemetery," adjacent to the town's main burial ground.

The proliferation of victims has spawned a growth industry, elaborate posters intended to honor them. Working from family photos, often nothing more than passport-style mug shots, artisans at Lammah Advertising create technicolor tributes.

The wonders of Photoshop revive the deceased in gallant style, often brandishing assault rifles, sometimes wearing cartridge belts across their chests. Many clients go for added flourishes such as eagles, tanks, bits of poetry, personal messages, religious imagery — or, as often as not, spectral images of Assad and his late father and predecessor, Hafez Assad.

"It's a service for our martyrs," explained Abu Hassan Suleiman, one of the print shop's directors. The work is done at cost.

More than 1,000 of the posters have been placed on the "martyrs wall" near the bus stop. The dead are mostly young men, but they include several older officers and at least one general. The lifelike stares seem to defy their fates.

On one poster, the image of a blue-eyed baby boy alongside a bearded soldier conveys a haunting message: "Father, I'm going to miss you."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Times staff writer McDonnell was recently on assignment in Syria. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos contributed to this report.

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