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Syria 1st-Hand: Spectre of War Reaches "Coastal Retreat" of Latakia (Chulov)

Martin Chulov reports for The Observer:

Local people describe it as a distant growl, an ever-present rumble, just to the north. A reminder that war is now at their doorstep.

It has been this way for two months in Latakia. The port city had managed to ride out Syria's civil war, seemingly content in the knowledge that whatever was happening in Hama to the south-east, or Idlib a little further north, an army stood between its gates and its foes. Not any more.

The spectre of war is now a reality here in the staunch core of the regime heartland, as much as it is in the rebellious and ravaged Sunni cities to the east. The shells that crunch most hours into the nearby countryside have not yet arrived. But the fear that pervades the communities on the fringes of Latakia is now spreading around the city known throughout the country as the government's stronghold, and possibly its last redoubt.

"We are afraid, very, very afraid," said Loubna, a final-year university student and resident of the city. "For so long the regime has been saying we will be safe here. That nothing will happen to us. Nothing can happen to us. But people are leaving, people are dying. Death is so near."

As the insurgency has blazed into nearly every corner of Syria, Latakia has stood resolute as a distant and almost unobtainable target, protected by some of the Syrian military's most formidable forces and diehard militias. Business still ticks over. With the engine room of the country's ecomomy – Aleppo – having ground to a halt, Latakia has stepped partly into the breach, all the while remaining the playground of Syria's wealthy elite and a refuge for its establishment.

President Bashar al-Assad has a palace on the coast and many of his generals keep villas here. Members of Syria's fractured opposition, as well as western states calling for Assad to be ousted, often claim that Latakia will be a last redoubt for key regime figures and the Alawite sect, from which much of Syria's power base is drawn.

Over the past two months, the influx of Alawites from the increasingly besieged villages to the north is slowly transforming the city into just such a sanctuary.

"The wolves are at the door," said an Alawite refugee in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. "Even Qardaha is not safe any more."

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