Protest Movements in Tartous: Dynamics and Implications

Protest Movements in Tartous: Dynamics and Implications
A view of the cityscape of Tartous city, May 2018. © Mohammad Alzain / Shutterstock


Over the past 12 years, the Syrian governorate of Tartous has experienced a relatively quiet period, with anti-regime demonstrations largely confined to specific areas and subsequently suppressed by the Assad regime's brutal crackdown. Participation in the revolution has been minimal, particularly in towns and cities where Sunnis are a minority. Instead, Tartous governorate has supplied staunch pro-regime fighters, earning the region the reputation of the regime's stronghold with the regime calling it “the mother of martyrs.”

However, despite its well-established loyalty to Assad, Tartous province has recently witnessed a series of protests over the past few years. This paper aims to examine the underlying factors that have compelled the residents of the governorate to protest, as well as the factors that hinder such protests, how the Assad regime has responded to them, and the strategies it employed to prevent them from recurring. By shedding light on post-revolution developments, this paper seeks to provide an understanding of the dynamics between the regime and the population of Tartous.

Alawite Protests in Tartous Since the Revolution

In the coastal region of Syria, protests against the Assad regime began in early-to-mid 2011, initiated mainly by non-Alawite groups. Baniyas, a coastal town 40 km north of Tartous, was among the first to break free from the regime's grip. This was followed on 18 March 2011 by demonstrators emerging from the Al-Rahman Mosque in the city of Tartous, calling for the overthrow of the regime. It is important to note that the majority of the population in these areas are Sunnis. Their protests were rights-oriented and condemned the long-standing history of sectarian discrimination faced by Sunnis as a minority in the region.

In response, the regime carried out a wave of arrests of protesters throughout the Tartous province. Baniyas itself was besieged and stormed by security forces, leading to the large-scale arrest of men and youth, while security forces and checkpoints were deployed within the city.

The anti-regime protests were not limited to Sunnis alone; they also gained support from Alawites, the sectarian group traditionally associated with privileged status under the Assad regime. From the early stages, several Alawite youths and former dissidents participated in demonstrations in Tartous, challenging the prevailing silence within their community. Some activists attempted to establish revolutionary organizations in the coastal region, such as the Nahel Movement, and conducted various activities, including distributing leaflets, sending mobile phone and Facebook messages aimed at dispelling fear of the regime, and urging people to join the revolution. However, the movement faced severe persecution by supporters of the Assad regime and the Baath Party, which hold significant sway within Alawite communities. Some Nahel members were reportedly subjected to torture and lost their lives, while others were forced to flee the region. Other initiatives in this context are the Syrian Revolutionary Youth Movement, as well as individual efforts by Alawite dissidents who joined the revolutionary Local Coordination Committees and actively participated in numerous demonstrations. In addition, some Alawites organized spontaneous protest activities, the most important of which are:

Temporary Workers' Strike at the Tartous Cement Factory

In early 2015, a series of strikes occurred among temporary workers at the Tartous Cement Factory, marking a wave of labor unrest.1Alimar Lazkani, “Strikes Paralyze the Tartous Cement Establishment and Undermines the Baath Party Secretary” (Arabic), Arabi 21, 25 February 2015, At the time, the factory employed around 1,500 daily wage workers. The strikes were initially hesitant as many temporary workers harbored doubts about their chances of success in achieving their demands. The primary motivation behind their demands was the severe financial strain they experienced, a situation made worse by soaring prices and their already low salaries, which were approximately half of what permanent workers earned. Some of these workers had remained in temporary positions for over 15 years, despite promises from the regime to address their employment status.

In response to these strikes, factory managers and Baath Party members resorted to accusing the striking workers of disloyalty and labeling them as traitors, in an attempt to undermine their legitimacy and discourage their protests. However, despite these accusations, the workers remained steadfast in their demonstrations and escalated their efforts to disrupt the operations of the Tartous Cement Factory. By strategically blocking roads within the facility and all exits, they effectively brought the operations of the factory to a halt on 10 February 2015.

During the protests, there were instances of violent clashes between the strikers and representatives of the regime due to heightened tensions and the regime’s attempt to suppress the protests. These confrontations undermined the regime's propaganda campaign, which is often used to label its opponents as traitors, terrorists, or conspirators. Out of frustration and in an attempt to mimic the regime’s rhetoric, some of the strikers threatened to join ISIS or al-Nusra if their demands for fixed salaries were not met. After approximately a month of sustained protests, the strikers achieved success in their efforts. All the daily wage workers were granted permanent employment contracts at the cement factory.

Successive Strikes by Bus Drivers in Tartous

In the early 2000s, the Syrian government actively promoted and facilitated the import and sale of small transport microbuses to ordinary individuals, encouraging them to operate on transportation routes to connect rural areas with cities, therefore, providing new transport services to residents with limited access to public transport services. The government's traffic authority regulated ticket prices for these microbuses based on the length of the route they served. This initiative led to the emergence of a new class of non-unionized drivers who operate these microbuses, and their expansion led to a significant decline in the government's public transport sector. Microbus owners became fully responsible for their operations. Whenever the regime authorities denied drivers access to fuel, imposed rationing, or increased ticket prices, collective anger among drivers would surface, often resulting in transportation crises.

In early 2016, Tartous experienced a sudden disruption in the new bus station servicing the route from Tartous to Draykish, a small town 25 km east of Tartous with a predominantly Alawite population. This strike was initially silently2Alimar Lazkani, “Syrian Business Begins Monopolizing Transport in Tartous, and the Regime Arrests His Rivals” (Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 7 June 2015, and prompted mainly by the severe scarcity of diesel and concerns over competition from buses owned by an influential businessman on the same route. It quickly caught the attention of the regime's security and Baath Party agencies who swiftly intervened, reaching out to most drivers and making promises to address the situation. The drivers resumed work the following day as the regime found alternative means to secure diesel supplies for the buses, circumventing the severe energy shortage prevalent in the general Syrian market. To mitigate the impact of the overall fuel crisis, the regime established dedicated diesel tanks at bus garages, providing a more reliable fuel supply for the buses. This arrangement allowed them to receive daily fuel rations and provided them with some protection from the fuel shortage affecting the rest of the country.

In October 2022, six years later,3Alimar Lazkani, “Microbus Strike in Tartous” (Arabic), The Levant News, 26 October 2022, another strike occurred in response to the regime's abrupt decision to halve the quota of diesel fuel allocated to internal transport microbuses without prior notice. This move prompted private microbus drivers to initiate a strike, as the current fare of 30 Syrian pounds per kilometer along the bus route proved insufficient to cover maintenance costs. Previously, drivers had managed their financial shortfall by selling diesel fuel on the black market. They would save approximately 10 liters per day of subsidized fuel, purchased at a rate of 500 Syrian pounds per liter, and sell it for 7,000 pounds per liter on the black market. This arrangement was satisfactory for drivers who were required to complete a certain number of trips per day.

The reduction in the daily diesel fuel quota by half coincided with a 10% decrease in the number of daily trips. This meant that drivers would be operating their private microbuses without significant income, particularly considering the majority of the buses were old and in need of regular maintenance. On the first day of the strike, 25 October 2022, the governor of Tartous, accompanied by security branch heads and police chiefs, visited the main microbus station in the governorate and issued instructions to revoke licenses and impose fines on buses that did not resume operation immediately. Concurrently, security agencies threatened drivers with arrest and fines if they did not return to work.

Within two days, all buses resumed operations, but with an additional 10% reduction in the number of trips. Drivers resorted to securing some income by continuing to sell diesel fuel on the black market. This compromise allowed them to sustain their livelihoods to a certain extent.

The August 2021 Yahmour Protest

In mid-August 2021, the regime established a waste landfill in Wadi al-Hada, in the village of Yahmour in the Akkar plain between Tartous and Safita. Residents, who primarily worked in agriculture, were promised by the regime that modern waste recycling plants would be established to protect the local environment from pollution. Bashar Al-Assad personally inaugurated the project. However, the regime failed to follow through with the implementation of the factory project, and instead, the valley was transformed into a landfill that polluted the groundwater and air.

Protests erupted4RT Arabic, “Protests Over Water Pollution in Yahmour: Tartous Governor Suggests Solutions” (Arabic), RT Arabic, 15 August 2021, when influential businessman Mazen Hamadeh, a member of the Baath Party leadership and the Chamber of Industry, diverted the water flow from the valley to his acquired lands through a corrupt purchase deal, according to witnesses from the village. This action was taken to increase the value of his land, resulting in the formation of polluted water swamps in the valley. As a result, severe pollution affected the groundwater and drinking water in the area, leading to damage to agricultural crops in greenhouses. The estimated financial losses for the local population reached nearly 500 million Syrian pounds.

Initially, the residents tried to engage with the governor and the regime's authorities in the governorate to restore the natural water flow, but their attempts were met with empty promises and delays from the governor. This angered them, as it epitomized a clear case of an official prioritizing personal interests over the well-being of hundreds of families. Their growing frustration led to a general wave of anger in the Yahmour area, prompting the residents to call for a roadblock on the Safita-Tartous road on the morning of Sunday, 8 August 2021. The objective was to draw attention to their issues and demands, seeking intervention from higher authorities beyond the governor's office and holding the responsible businessman accountable, as they suspected collusion and bribery between the governor and Mazen Hamadeh.

Within a few hours, the governor, accompanied by party leaders and security officials, arrived at the roadblock. He made promises and vowed to the people that the landfill would be relocated to a different area within 15 days. He also invited the protesting individuals to the governorate to discuss and resolve all the problems in the area. Despite arguments with the security officials and threats, the governor's promises persuaded the protesters to end their demonstration and reopen the road. The next day, they met with the governor again, where he reiterated his commitments.

However, the situation took a turn when the Political Security Directorate summoned the delegation of protesters to the governor's office and detained them. Some were subjected to torture, according to reports by residents, and threats were made to imprison them and their families if they spoke out. They were forbidden from publicly acknowledging their arrest in front of the people, effectively ending the first genuine attempt at protest in the governorate in a bleak manner.

Factors Behind the Outbreak of Protests

Years of war in Syria have brought about significant changes in the structure of the regime and the political ideology of its loyalists, including within the community of Alawites, which the Assad regime historically relied upon for support.

This shift is unfavorable to the regime's interests as it shows seeds of instability. The relationship between the regime and its support base has undergone a complete change compared to the period from Bashar al-Assad's assumption of power until the start of the revolution in March 2011. The Alawite community has now partially or completely freed itself from its absolute loyalty to the Assad regime and its symbols. This evolving relationship may pave the way for movements that oppose the previous methods of governance or give rise to demands for protests.

Several factors have contributed to this change in the regime's relationship with its loyalists:

The Alawite's inclination towards economic independence from the state and a decline in the appeal of government employment: In Alawite communities, government jobs were highly coveted as they offered financial stability and the potential for prosperity. However, following the revolution and the war, government jobs no longer provide a good income. Inflation has caused prices to increase nearly tenfold since 2011, while salaries of public employees have only seen marginal increases. An employee's monthly salary has plummeted from $400 to $30. This significant decrease in income has created a stark disparity between the living standards of government employees and army volunteers before and after the revolution, which has led to a sense of disillusionment towards employment and full-time military service. Alawite public employees, already struggling to make ends meet, now rely on additional sources of income outside their government positions. Many individuals in rural areas have returned to livestock farming, which had been banned by the Assad regime in the 1980s.5Alimar Lazkani, “Livestock: The Squandered Wealth of the Syrian Coast” (Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabic, 5 July 2015, Urban residents, on the other hand, have turned their attention to the industrial and private sectors. This growing divergence between government employment and the potential for higher income from other professions marks a significant shift, potentially breaking the longstanding correlation between good income and state employment. The primary motivation for government employees to remain in their positions is the hope that government salaries will eventually return to higher levels after the war. It may also stem from the lack of viable alternatives, as the Alawite community would need years to establish independent sources of income capable of absorbing a large segment of the workforce.

The massive number of deaths suffered by Alawites in the ongoing war: The war in Syria has resulted in a considerable number of casualties among Alawites, particularly between 2013 and 2015. According to estimates and leaked information from the Martyrs' Office in Tartous Governorate, nearly 100,000 Alawite soldiers were killed when fighting on behalf of the regime. These figures do not include the missing/disappeared or those injured in the war. The Tartous governorate alone accounted for more than half of these casualties, creating a noticeable demographic gap within the Alawite community, a loss that represents approximately 10% of young men aged 18 to 45.

The impact of the war goes beyond the loss of lives. Many former fighters, including Alawite young men, have been physically and mentally affected by their military involvement. Their absence from civil and social life, as well as the labor market, is a direct result of their participation in military activities. This situation has led to discontent and grievances within the Alawite community, exacerbated by the extreme poverty experienced by the families of the deceased and the inadequate compensation provided by the regime.

At the beginning of the revolution in 2011, the regime's propaganda machinery did not portray the war as it unfolded. It initially presented it as a means to suppress unarmed civilians and teach the "terrorists" a lesson. The regime also spread fear and sectarian animosity towards the Sunni community, further instilling concerns among Alawites about the potential loss of their privileges under a new regime that could exert pressure on them. Historical experiences of Sunni persecution against minorities, including Alawites, have left a lasting impact on their collective consciousness.

However, as the armed opposition became more organized, more armed, and successful in dealing severe blows to the regime's army and militias after 2012, the regime's image and military capabilities were severely undermined. This was further exacerbated when the regime was compelled to make settlements with the opposition, highlighting its inability to achieve the decisive military victory it had promised its supporters.6The Russian forces made many deals with armed groups in different conflict areas in Syria, some of which resulted in the joining of groups of them to the Russian Fifth Corps in Syria, such as the Ahmad al-Awda group in Daraa, see:

These events led to a considerable number of soldiers deserting the Assad regime's ranks. The National Defense Forces militia, the main militia in the coastal region, experienced a form of disintegration. Today, it consists mainly of individuals who failed to perform military service, deserters, and those avoiding reserve military duty. Many have chosen to become leave the country to escape conscription, death, poverty, and the lack of prospects in Syria. The regime's checkpoints along the Syrian coast have become traps for these young men, but their decisions to leave the country have been widely accepted and even encouraged by the local population.7Alimar Lazkani, No Homeland, No Future: Alawite Youth As the Backbone of the Assad Regime, Arab Reform Initiative, 9 April 2020,

The Alawite community has been affected by the spread of poverty, drug abuse, and criminal activities in both rural and urban areas. Cases of theft targeting shops, cars, and motorcycles, have become more prevalent and are often carried out by gangs comprised mainly of members from the National Defense Forces militia. Some of them openly sell stolen goods, causing concerns among the local population. For example, the Shadi Wannous gang in Draykish has been notorious for committing robberies in broad daylight, requiring military intervention to stop them. Incidents of indiscriminate shooting, clashes among militia members, and the use of stun grenades for trivial reasons are also common in the Alawite environment.

The proliferation of drugs, including influential individuals involved in drug trafficking with impunity, has also become a pressing issue. Gambling has also seen a widespread increase. These phenomena have eroded the trust of Alawites in their social environment and created a general sense of resentment towards the regime's inaction in combating these problems that primarily affect their youth.

The regime's inability to address these practices has contributed to the diminishing prestige of the state and the growing dissatisfaction among the people of the coastal region, particularly among the Alawite population. The Assad regime can no longer boast about the "safety" it once used to manipulate and gain the loyalty of its supporters.

 Factors Containing the Protests

Since the beginning of the revolution in 2011, the majority of Alawites have shown a reluctance to engage in any form of mobilization. This can be attributed to the longstanding relationship between the regime and their community during the rule of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. Unlike dissidents within their ranks, the Alawite community was not subject to the control or extortion of the security branches. Utilizing religious and Baath party activities, the regime worked to portray its opponents as outsiders. Testimonies from former party secretaries reveal the continuous coordination between these sheikhs, party officials, and the regime's security agencies.

The regime also sought to politicize the Alawite religion and foster opportunistic religious leaders who elevated both the father and son, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, to the status of religious symbols. As a result, for many Alawites, the rule of the Assad family resembled the concept of Wilayat al-Faqih, where the supreme leader is considered the ultimate religious authority and a guardian. However, several factors emerged during the revolution that challenged the sanctity of this instrumentalization. This was mainly due to the regime's self-proclaimed ideals and supposed secularism, as represented in its constitution, and its limited ability to operate within a religious framework, necessitating informal channels.

An Opposition without a National Project

Political opposition has not historically attracted the Alawite community, partly because it lacked a comprehensive national project. The opposition focused on condemning the regime and its crimes, often accusing those who remained silent, including Alawites and other minority groups, of treason and collusion with the regime. This narrative was further amplified with the emergence of jihadist groups in Syria, which viewed Alawites as sinners deserving of repentance at best. On the other hand, the remaining factions within the opposition were fragmented and lacked representation of the broader revolutionary sentiment in Syria.

The presence of jihadist, Islamist, dependent, or weak opposition groups failed to create an environment that inspired optimism or encouraged Alawite participation in the broader popular movement across Syria. As the revolution in Syria transformed into a protracted civil war, these factors worsened, leading to sectarian conflicts in many areas. These conflicts continue to be a significant and determining factor when considering the potential for protest and dissent among Alawites in the coastal regions of Syria.

Weaponizing the Community

It is important to acknowledge that since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, the regime has not resorted to armed violence to suppress protest movements in the coastal region. It has displayed a considerable degree of flexibility in its response to various forms of sporadic protests. Despite facing a severe shortage of human resources and a pressing need for fighters, the regime has maintained a considerable number of security personnel in the coastal areas. Approximately 100,000 security personnel, all from the Alawite community, are employed by the regime's apparatuses, operating both locally and within the intelligence branches.

Furthermore, the regime has placed a strong emphasis on maintaining a heavy security presence in loyalist areas and actively recruits informants from various backgrounds, including Baathists, government employees, and teachers. These informants are tasked with providing the security authorities with information, no matter how insignificant, ranging from remote villages to city centers. Over nearly five decades, the regime has effectively transformed the Syrian coast into an extensive security complex, where it infiltrates professional, social, and communal circles, leaving little room for the emergence of organized protest movements.

However, if the situation were to deteriorate further, general social demands may arise, which could potentially embarrass the regime and trigger broader protest movements. Nevertheless, due to the regime's pervasive security measures and control, the organization of such movements remains exceedingly challenging.

Absence of Trade Unions and Civil Bodies

Similar to other regions under the regime's control, the Syrian coast experiences a near-total absence of active political organizations. The regime has made concerted efforts to undermine and neutralize trade unions, infiltrating and corrupting them to serve its interests. These actions have effectively stripped these unions of their original purpose, turning them into extensions of the regime, operating as either security branches or branches of the Baath Party. The lack of political organization in the coastal region can be traced back to the wave of arrests conducted by Hafez al-Assad in the early 1980s, which targeted leaders, staff, and members of leftist parties.

Although these parties attempted to revive their activities during the Syrian revolution, the regime prohibited their operations in the coastal region. While a limited space for partisan activity was permitted in Damascus, the regime arrested cells of the Communist Labor Party in the coastal region in early 2013, releasing them only after extracting pledges they would refrain from organizational work and confine their activities to a narrow framework in Damascus. The regime also obstructed any attempts to establish new groups with an organizational character, such as the Ma'an movement (Together for a Free and Democratic Syria) and Muwatana (Citizenship). Furthermore, former leaders of leftist parties and individuals who sought to organize political actions on the Syrian coast, such as the members of the Communist Labor Party, were arrested in early 2012, effectively stifling their efforts.


As living conditions of the population in the Tartous province continue to deteriorate, the likelihood of protests focused on services or livelihood demands increases. These protests have the potential to evolve into larger movements with national political demands. However, at present, they remain fragile and face significant challenges in the form of an organized and powerful security apparatus and overcoming political stagnation.

Unless the regime faces crises that directly challenge its nature, such as protests from within the military or a combination of military and civilian protests, there are no chances of change happening any time soon. Such a change would require a convergence of forces from multiple directions. The stability of the regime's support base would largely enable it to maintain control over events in the coastal region of Syria.




1 Alimar Lazkani, “Strikes Paralyze the Tartous Cement Establishment and Undermines the Baath Party Secretary” (Arabic), Arabi 21, 25 February 2015,
2 Alimar Lazkani, “Syrian Business Begins Monopolizing Transport in Tartous, and the Regime Arrests His Rivals” (Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 7 June 2015,
3 Alimar Lazkani, “Microbus Strike in Tartous” (Arabic), The Levant News, 26 October 2022,
4 RT Arabic, “Protests Over Water Pollution in Yahmour: Tartous Governor Suggests Solutions” (Arabic), RT Arabic, 15 August 2021,
5 Alimar Lazkani, “Livestock: The Squandered Wealth of the Syrian Coast” (Arabic), Al-Quds Al-Arabic, 5 July 2015,
6 The Russian forces made many deals with armed groups in different conflict areas in Syria, some of which resulted in the joining of groups of them to the Russian Fifth Corps in Syria, such as the Ahmad al-Awda group in Daraa, see:
7 Alimar Lazkani, No Homeland, No Future: Alawite Youth As the Backbone of the Assad Regime, Arab Reform Initiative, 9 April 2020,

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.