Children splashing in the Mediterranean, young men and women in swimwear smoking hookah – this could be any holiday hot spot, but it’s Latakia, a seaside town in war-torn Syria.
On our way here, we drove through Homs’ al-Khaldeeye district – its streets empty after being under siege for years. The concrete husks of former homes and businesses stretched out in front of us for as far as the eye could see, buildings riddled with bullet holes, floors collapsed from tank shells, bombs and mortar fire. The only living souls were us, an occasional car and the Syrian military posts every couple of blocks. It was difficult to imagine, despite years covering Syria, the amount of destructive effort that was needed to attain this result. Hours earlier, as guests of the Syrian government, we were on the front lines of the military’s fight against ISIS in the country’s central region, where devastation also reigns.
The contrast with Latakia – in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s heartland, where his support is rock-solid and the Russians have an air base – could not be more stark.
Tucked safely away from the six-year-long Syrian war, Latakia is a seaside province that has escaped the fighting largely unscathed. Assad’s ancestral hometown, Qardahah, is a short drive away. It has always been a bastion of relative peace during war; but now more than ever, as Assad’s military gains are cemented.
“We are tired from the war,” says Michael Michael, who was taking a break from his job at the Syrian embassy in Sudan.
“So we are happy here in Latakia.”
During much of Syria’s war, Assad’s regime seemed to be on the brink of collapse. Its military was stretched dangerously thin, battling armed anti-government forces across the country. But defeat was staved off after Russia intervened in 2015 to back Assad. An estimated 400,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations. As of December 2016, nearly 5 million Syrians have fled the country, with another 6.3 million displaced internally.
One local, Tarek Shaabo, was so thrilled with Russia’s military intervention at Assad’s behest that he named his hookah bar Moscow Cafe. It’s now very popular, he said, among the large number of Russian soldiers stationed nearby.
The cafe was packed on the Sunday night we visited and filled with thick, sweet smoke. Fierce soccer rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid were battling it out on television, and every seat was filled with 20 somethings staring at the large flat-panels. Two off-duty Syrian soldiers, still in uniform, sat laughing and smoking. Under one of the omnipresent pictures of Assad, a group of men and women sipped 7-Ups, dragged on their cigarettes and slapped cards on the table.
Summer in Syria’s Latakia
During our two days in Latakia, we even saw international vacationers – mainly Lebanese from across the border, and some from Lebanon’s diaspora in Europe – seeking a cheap week at the beach. To many, that might seem surprising. But Latakia is much cheaper than Lebanon, especially with a full family in tow, and easily accessible across Lebanon’s northern border.
“So many people have problems in their life today. It’s hard to live in this country,” said Fadi Tannous, 17, a student from Latakia. Going to the beach helps people relax, he said.
Tannous sported a straw fedora and Ray Ban lookalikes. His 15-year-old sister wore an American flag bikini top.
It’s undoubtedly a haven for the well-to-do.
The Cote D’Azur beach resort on the northern edge of Latakia was packed with young people perfectly fluent in English, drinking vodka and orange juice and smoking hookah. The bass was thumping, top-shelf liquor flowed freely and fresh sea air wafted through the space.
“The prices are really – like workers and other expenses – are really low. And there is a good opportunity for making a business,” said Manaf Qudar, who just opened his brand new seaside 360° Club. Qudar is from Latakia, but lived for a long time in Dubai before recently moving back.
“We are aiming to have the VIP population – the ‘Class A,’” he said.
The club’s parking lot was filled with high-end German cars. Waiters in red fezzes and fake mustaches – it was a theme night – ferried cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to customers in expensive shirts and sequined dresses.
“Syria is hurt. We have a great pain from the war,” Qudar said. “There is a need for happiness in this country.”
Despite the initial shock of encountering parties and beach resorts in Syria, it is perhaps unsurprising that Latakia, privileged among the governing elite, has such a sense of normality.
Only time will tell when the rest of this country attains a similar serenity.