TARTOUS, Syria (AP) -- In this picturesque coastal city fiercely loyal to President Bashar Assad, beaches are dotted with swimmers, cafes are filled with Syrians smoking water pipes, and restaurant bars are packed with late night revelers, seemingly oblivious to the civil war raging in the rest of the country.
The Mediterranean port has emerged as an unusual example of coexistence in this country torn apart by sectarian violence. It is populated mostly by members of Assad's Alawite minority sect, the most diehard supporters of his regime. At the same time, hundreds of thousands have flocked here to escape violence in war-shattered cities such as Homs and Aleppo, many of them Sunnis, some with relatives fighting alongside the rebellion.
Despite a few small incidents of verbal arguments reported by residents, sectarian tensions are minimal. Neither side wants to bring the war here.
"I think we all realized that this is the last safe place in Syria," said Fuad, a Sunni chef in one of the city's restaurants, who arrived with his family from the Damascus suburb of Daraya four months ago. Like others interviewed by The Associated Press here, he spoke on condition he be identified by his first name only, or not at all, for security reasons.
Even now, with looming punitive military action by Western countries against Assad's regime, residents of Tartous seem unfazed. Some have fled to neighboring countries for a few days to wait out the strikes, but there are no signs of widespread panic -- though many are convinced military installations in the city would be targeted.
"Right outside of the city, there's a missile base and if they decide to hit, that's one of the things to go first," said Rana, a resident university student studying English literature. "However, we're sure they won't be hitting civilians, so we're not worried."
Unlike most other towns and cities across the country, Tartous has been relatively untouched by the 2 ½ years of violence that has killed over 100,000 people, ravaged the economy, and leveled entire apartment blocks.
The city, about an hour and a half drive west of Homs, is ringed with 14 army checkpoints, covering the its five entrances. Posters of Assad hang on walls, electricity posts and windshields.
The Alawite sect, which makes up about 13 percent of Syria's population of 23 million, has historically been centered in towns and villages of Syria's mountainous coast that make up the provinces of Tartous and Latakia. If the regime falls, that heartland could become a refuge for the community -- and even for Assad himself -- from which to fight for survival against a Sunni majority that has long resented their domination.
The rebels fighting to topple Assad are mostly Sunnis. They recently overran a string of Alawite villages in Latakia, but the regime quickly reversed those gains.
Tartous, also home to the one of the country's two main seaports serving as Russia's only naval outpost outside the former Soviet Union, is perhaps the only Syrian city that has never seen a significant protest against Assad. According to residents and aid workers, around 700,000 people, mostly Alawites and Sunnis, have streamed from hotspots into the city, which originally had a population of less than one million.
Most are women and their children, whose husbands or fathers stayed behind to keep their jobs or to join in the fighting.
"One can easily say that Tartous is the only city that benefited from the crisis," said a Christian restaurant owner who moved his family here from Homs to Tartous two years ago, after his restaurant in that city was seized by the rebels.
"Tartous is being built on the ashes of other Syrian cities, it became alive as other cities died," he added, while going through bills in his newly opened restaurant by the sea.
Still, signs of war creep in. Begging and prostitution among the displaced is spreading. Every now and then, the siren of ambulances on their way to funerals for fallen soldiers pierces the calm.
Hanadi, a 28-year-old woman from the district of al-Sukkari in Aleppo, arrived in Tartous seven months ago with her two children and one bag of belongings. Her husband stayed behind, joining a rebel battalion fighting Assad's forces.
She roams the streets, selling flowers while she looks for work in the restaurants along the city's seaside corniche.
"He wanted us to come here so that we'd be safe," she said of her husband. "But he couldn't come himself, he could not leave his duty of jihad," or holy struggle, she said, referring to the fight against Assad.