By an EMPLOYEE of THE NEW YORK TIMES in SYRIA and  Published: December 22, 2012

TARTUS, Syria — Loyalists who support the government of President Bashar al-Assad are flocking to the Mediterranean port of Tartus, creating an overflowing boomtown far removed from the tangled, scorched rubble that now mars most Syrian cities.

The New York Times

The port city of Tartus is sheltered by a mountain range.

There are no shellings or air raids to interrupt the daily calm. Families pack the cafes lining the town’s seaside corniche, usually abandoned in December to the salty winter winds. The real estate market is brisk. A small Russian naval base provides at least the impression that salvation, if needed, is near.

Many of the new residents are members of the Alawite minority, the same Shiite Muslim sect to which Mr. Assad belongs. The latest influx is fleeing from Damascus, people who have decided that summer villas, however chilly, are preferable to the looming battle for the capital.

“Going to Tartus is like going to a different country,” said a Syrian journalist who recently met residents here. “It feels totally unaffected and safe. The attitude is, ‘We are enjoying our lives while our army is fighting overseas.’ ”

Should Damascus fall to the opposition, Tartus could become the heart of an attempt to create a different country. Some expect Mr. Assad and the security elite will try to survive the collapse by establishing a rump Alawite state along the coast, with Tartus as their new capital.

There have been various signs of preparations.

This month, the governor of Tartus Province announced that experts were studying how to develop a tiny local airfield, now used mostly by crop-dusters, into a full-fledged civilian airport “to boost transportation, business, travel and tourism,” as the official Syrian news agency, SANA, reported. The announcement coincided with the first attacks on the airport in Damascus, forcing it to close temporarily to international traffic.

More important, security forces are continuously tightening an extensive ring of checkpoints around the potential borders of an Alawite canton. The mountain heartland of the Alawites rises steeply to the east of Tartus, separating it from much of Syria. Across the mountains, the Orontes River creates a rough line separating Alawite territory from central Syria. Rebel military commanders from adjoining Hama Province said government soldiers vigorously maintain checkpoints on routes leading up into the mountains.

“If we bomb a checkpoint, it is back in place sometimes within hours,” said Basil al-Hamwi, a rebel fighter, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting of opposition military commanders in Turkey. “Once, in Hama Province, we destroyed five in one day and they were all back the next day. This area is even more important for them than Damascus.”

Mr. Hamwi and other rebel leaders said there were about 40 government checkpoints along more than 60 miles in Homs and Hama Provinces alone. Many Alawite commanders of Mr. Assad’s army have sent their families to their home villages, so they are particularly aggressive in protecting the area, said Hassan M. al-Saloom, a rebel battalion commander. They have formed committees to guard the outskirts of their villages, he said, and often negotiate local truces.

“Nobody goes inside, and they don’t come out,” he said.

There are widespread suspicions within the opposition that the military is shipping weapons into the Alawite hinterland, or has already positioned them. “The mountains and the coast make it hard to raid,” Mr. Saloom said.

Castles left by the Crusaders dot the coastal range, a testament to its strategic value.

If Mr. Assad fled to Tartus, he could seek protection from the Russian naval base here, or flee aboard a Russian vessel. Russia announced Tuesday that it was sending a small flotilla toward Tartus, possibly to evacuate its citizens who live in Syria. But Tartus residents said that the Russian families from the naval base had already left, while the officers do not leave the base, which is little more than an enclosure near the civilian port.