BANIAS, Syria: While much of the rest of Syria burns in an increasingly sectarian civil war, this religiously mixed town on the Mediterranean coast has weathered outbursts of bloodshed before settling – for now – into a frigid, divided peace.
It is a tenuous truce that endures in large part because of a simple assessment made by the Sunnis who form a majority of the town’s 50,000 residents: The government will not tolerate dissent in the mountainous coastal region that forms the heartland of President Bashar Assad’s Alawite sect.
That calculation was tested after a mass killing in a Sunni village outside Banias in May. But instead of plunging into the abyss of reprisal killings and sectarian slaughter that has devoured other communities in Syria, Sunnis and Alawites in Banias pulled back into their communities, taking shelter behind the ramparts of their respective sects but leaving the town intact.
“The city has always been somehow divided,” said Ahmad, an Alawite electrician who, like others interviewed here, refused to give his last name for fear of being targeted. “But recently, the division has become more noticeable. While before, it was normal to visit each other’s neighborhoods, we now have an unspoken agreement: We should each keep to our part of the city.”
It is a meandering path that Banias took to arrive where it is today, with Sunnis shopping almost exclusively at Sunni-run stores and Alawites doing the same. Sunni residents in Banias staged large demonstrations against Assad shortly after the uprising against his rule began in March 2011. The government responded here as it did elsewhere, dispatching the military and pro-government thugs to quell the protests in a bloody crackdown.
Sunni residents, fearing more violence, closed off their neighborhoods, acutely aware that while they are the majority in Banias, they are a minority in the Alawite-dominated coastal region dominated by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. They rolled out barbed wire and reinforced checkpoints at entrances to Sunni districts. Some Sunnis began killing locals suspected of informing for the government.
On the Alawite side of town, residents also closed ranks. “Popular committees” erected checkpoints at entrances to Alawite neighborhoods. Young men also started patrolling Alawite districts.
“It’s normal for us to want to protect our neighborhoods,” said Ayham, a Sunni who owns a small bakery. “Plus, they’re doing the same.”
Banias appeared to be on the brink in May after pro-Assad forces killed nearly 250 people in the Sunni village of Bayda and the Sunni suburb of Ras al-Nabaa outside Banias. Both sides braced for revenge killings.
They never came.
Why is unclear, but for Sunnis the decision appeared to be based on a simple calculation: Assad’s government will not allow a rebellious city in his Alawite stronghold. Resistance would be crushed. The relative peace in Banias comes as the two sides have been locked in a stalemate that has left much of the country carved up into rebel- and government-held areas.
“There was a time before the military entered Banias in 2011, and even right after the recent troubles in Bayda and Ras al-Nabaa, when we wouldn’t sleep, patrolling the streets,” said Haidara, a resident of an Alawite neighborhood. “Today, however, our lives had to go back to a certain degree of normalcy.”
Eight months later, the regular rhythms of Banias have returned to the city’s market, which consists of two parallel streets split in half: the northern part for Alawites and the southern for Sunnis, with few exceptions.
Following early protests, Sunnis and Alawites boycotted each other’s shops. Today, however, the market is the sole place of coexistence in the city. “This is the one place where we interact with each other,” said Thaer, holding his 5-year-old daughter’s hand while shopping for groceries. “I think everyone has realized that it’s impossible to boycott each other when it comes to business. We don’t have to deal with each other on a social level, but we all need to buy and sell. We don’t have to mix the two.”
Social ties between sects were never very strong, residents say, but the rift has increased with the violent government crackdown.
For some Sunnis, the fault lies with Alawite residents who put their sect ahead of communal ties by not coming to the aid of their Sunni neighbors when the government moved against the peaceful protests.
“When the regular army went into our neighborhoods, destroyed our cars, called us dogs and humiliated us, we were waiting for the Alawites to say something, do something,” said Faisal, a 50-year-old Sunni who owns a small cafe on the Corniche of Banias. “Even if we’ve never been close, we lived with each other for many, many years. They should’ve stood up for us.”
Karim, one of his employees, agreed. “It’s not just a matter of sect. If they helped us we wouldn’t be here today.”
“We punished Sunnis who we found out were working as informants for the regime. We killed three, and they’re our own people, but they didn’t help us.”
Bassam, an Alawite resident who commutes to Tartous every day to work as a barber, also believes that the rift transcends sects. “I’m not a big fan of the regime,” he said hesitantly. “But if I was to do anything, my punishment would be more severe than any Sunni. My own sect would shun me, Sunnis wouldn’t trust me and I’d probably get arrested and tortured because in their head, being an Alawite dictates that you’re pro-regime. It doesn’t work that way.”