TARTOUS, Syria, March 20 (Reuters) - This once sleepy Syrian port now buzzes with shoppers milling about crowded market places. Lines of cars wait patiently at traffic lights - a rare mark of order in a country where most cities have erupted into street wars.
Tartous remains an island of calm - for now. And with a ring of army checkpoints carefully guarding its outskirts, it is flourishing amid Syria’s destruction.
That is partly because the city is home to many Alawites, the minority sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs and which now feels threatened by an uprising against him led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
Tartous is not only a haven for thousands of civilians fleeing violence, but a magnet for merchants who want to keep business flowing in what they view as only a temporary home.
“Tartous is living its golden days in terms of business, and if a merchant is clever he has an opportunity he can exploit,” says Samer, a shoe salesman who closed up shop in the central city of Homs a year ago and moved his family to Tartous.
While many worry about the port’s long-term future, they are eager to do business now while they plan a more permanent move.
“I will not stay here too long. I am just trying to sell off the goods I have and then leave, probably to Egypt,” said Abu Ahmed, a Sunni importer of Chinese school supplies.
The Mediterranean city has swelled to around 1.6 million from an original population of 938,000, according to residents’ estimates.
Assad’s portraits hang in the streets and there are few signs of the rebellion that is tearing the rest of the country apart, other than pictures of young men who have died fighting for the Syrian leader.
Locals say the influx of businesses to Tartous soared after August 2012, when rebels moved into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and opened up a new battlefront that is now mired in a bloody stalemate.
Aleppo has a large population of wealthy Sunni merchants, such as Abu Ahmed, who moved here soon after the fighting began.
Local tradesmen say some recently enacted laws have made it easier for shop and factory owners to move their equipment to safer cities. They believe the measures were meant to channel business to Tartous and encourage Sunni merchants to move there.
“It seems as if the government is saying to the rich Sunnis, come to the coast. But to the poor Sunnis, get out of Syria and go be a refugee,” said Amir, a Christian salesman from Tartous.
Northern Aleppo, Syria’s business hub, has been paralysed by devastating street battles and air raids. Much of central Homs, once a regional centre of commerce, has been flattened by more than a year of fighting. And Hama, another centre of industry, is isolated by the turmoil.
Aside from military protection, Tartous has access to the outside world through its port, where fuel, grain and other supplies arrive in bulk.
“One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain,” Amir joked. “There is no other area to buy fuel than Tartous ... So the car owners come to fill their tanks, and since they’ve come all this way, they might as well buy all their other needs.”
Cashpoints for state employees to withdraw their salaries only work now in Tartous and the capital Damascus, to the south. Private banks and insurance companies have also relocated here.
The port is also home to a Russian naval facility, Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union and a symbol of decades-old ties between Moscow and the Assad ruling dynasty. Russia continues to supply Assad with military equipment as he battles the uprising.
While many small and medium-sized businesses are taking advantage of the opportunity here, they are aware it may not last. They worry the crisis in the rest of the country will eventually hit Tartous.
Bigger merchants with more assets have already moved their businesses to places they hope will be stable over the longer term, such as Turkey, Dubai, Kurdish northern Iraq, Egypt and even Lebanon.
“There is no guarantee this will stay stable,” says businessman Amir. “You never know; overnight the problems the rest of Syria have faced could arrive here.”
Smaller businesses are reluctant to buy property in Tartous, and this has helped pushed rental rates for homes and businesses to triple pre-conflict prices.
New housing or building projects are a rarity. Construction supplies are now expensive. And for many in Tartous, there is a nagging fear that it is only a matter of time before the crisis engulfing the rest of country arrives.
Each night, shopkeepers say, a local businessman sends out his fleet of taxis with men to patrol the streets for signs of trouble, and hand any suspicious people to the secret police.
Locals make clear that while they are open to any group moving in for business, criticism of Assad is not tolerated.
“The people of Tartous are ready to help their guests as long as they are civilised and don’t cause problems by talking about our leader or the army,” said one Alawite businessman, who declined to be named.
“Tartous has offered many, many martyrs for the country. We’re not prepared to listen to anything that would hurt the mothers of our martyrs.”