BEIRUT: Tension and unrest have spread to the town of Qardaha in Latakia, the hometown of Bashar Assad, and other areas on the coast after a gunfight that wounded a close relative of the Syrian president.
According to sources familiar with the issue the series of events began Saturday evening at a cafe in Qardaha, and involved the shooting of Mohammad Assad, a cousin of the president who is notorious as the head of a smuggling network tolerated by the authorities.
Assad, according to various media reports, became enraged when members of other families from Qardaha were involved in a discussion about last month’s arrest of Abdel-Aziz Khayyer at Damascus Airport, reportedly by Air Force Intelligence personnel.
Khayyer, a native of Qardaha, is believed to have been detained following his return from Beijing along with two other members of the National Coordination Body, a Syria-based opposition grouping that had held talks on the political situation in Syria with Chinese officials.
At the cafe, members of the Khayyer, Othman and Abboud families expressed their displeasure over the move, and as one source put it, the discussion then moved to a general airing of criticism about the regime’s violent crackdown against the opposition, and a bloody conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.
The fight in the cafe led to an exchange of gunfire that pitted members of the Assad and Shalish families against the Othman, Abboud and Khayyer families, according to most media reports.
Various accounts have maintained that Assad was wounded in the fight, while Samar Yazbek, a prominent Alawi opposition activist who fled Syria, posted on her Facebook page that five members of her Othman clan had been killed in the cafe incident.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, was quoted as saying Assad “was in critical condition.”
Sources contacted by The Daily Star declined to speculate as to the exact casualty figures on either side, and whether another cousin of the president had also been wounded in later fighting.
They said tension resurfaced the following day in Qardaha, during a gathering of townspeople that some reports described as an anti-regime protest.
On Tuesday evening, according to several accounts on social media and sources who spoke to The Daily Star, fighting broke out between the two sides in the Qardaha region, both on the outskirts of the town and in the village of Ain Aruz.
Some media reports initially treated the murky incident as arising from a dispute over revenues from smuggling activities, but several sources were adamant about the cause being rising discontent with the massive level of violence in Syria and the danger it represents to the Alawite community.
According to an activist with the Syrian Revolution General Commission, responsible for monitoring events in the Latakia Governorate, the incident in Qardaha didn’t reflect a sudden turn to the mainstream opposition by residents of the president’s hometown.
The source affirmed that residents of Qardaha gathered in public one day after the cafe incident, but said their protest action was centered on demanding that those who engaged in the gunfight at the cafe be brought to justice.
“Those who protested shouldn’t be seen as demanding the fall of the regime” as an echo of the mainstream opposition to the Assad government, she said, but rather a simple “call to punish those responsible” for the cafe killings.
However, she said the overall level of tension had been building because of “the question about the future [of Qardaha and the Alawite community].”
“People there want to see a solution” to the violence gripping the country, she added. Death notices of young men killed in fighting over the last 18 months have become a common sight on the streets of the town.
The General Commission activist said the situation remained extremely tense, with regime aircraft spotted over Qardaha in the wake of the incident.
Another source familiar with the recent events said that in the wake of Saturday’s melee, 10 people had been arrested in the coastal town of Banias, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, as well as several dozen other people in the city of Tartous.
Those in Tartous, he added, come from the ranks of pro-opposition activists from the Alawi community.
The move appeared linked to the regime’s growing impatience with any form of political opposition, even if not directly linked to the rebel Free Syrian Army, the source said.
Observers note that the general level of tension in Latakia has been on the rise due to two developments.
For months, anti-regime Sunni villages in the governorate have been subjected to arrest campaigns and shelling by government forces, while in recent weeks, the Turkman community, located in two rural areas in Latakia, has also begun to throw its lot in with the Free Syrian Army, forming several rebel battalions.