Weren't 40 years of Assad rule supposed to have made Alawites the best off in Syria? Weren't they facing impending retaliatory massacre for having thrown in their lot with the sons of these hills?
Had they been swindled?
The legend of Saleh al-Ali shines a light on how the myth of Alawite privilege never quite corresponded to the reality. As a well-respected historian told me, Ali was a petty nationalist inflated into gigantic proportions by Syria's first president, Shukri al-Quwatli. His goal was to give the Alawites an alternate hero after the government hung cult leader Suleiman al-Murshed, who had led an Alawite revolt against the newly independent state in 1946.
Passing the statue, a woman from a village atop another hill shrugged, under her breath: "He used to steal chickens from my great-grandfather."
Further up the twisting road, each turn offering a view more stunning, we pulled over to take in a dramatic vista, joining several others in quiet reverie. With one's back to the line of coffins coming up the road, the violence encircling Syria might as well have been in a different country. A patchwork of different shades of green -- pine, olive, cypress, grass -- and their different textures lit up each time the sun ventured from behind the several hanging clouds. Children were subdued, couples held hands, young men smoked cigarettes.
Of course, they people here want to protect this splendor and tranquility. But what had it cost Syria for this area to avoid the fate of the rest of the country? Did its survival necessitate the destruction of so many other places? What would it cost these hills once the misguided yet inevitable calls for vengeance and retribution pierced this bubble? Was it too late to alter this zero-sum formula by which Syria was being destroyed and re-imagined?
The breeze carried with it the scent of burning trash -- the lack of effective government waste removal was another hint that this was hardly some lavish enclave of wealthy oligarchs. The air here was already several degrees colder than where we had begun our trip, at sea level. Its briskness and its smell hurried our return to the road.
Descending back to Tartous, the road -- generally wide enough for a lane of traffic going each direction with room for passing -- was overtaken by the funeral convoy that had caught up from below. The vehicles on our side pulled over to give way.
The women's faces were contorted in pain as they walked next to a small white van carrying the bodies. Young men revved their motorcycles while keeping the slow pace, and the boys standing on the back of the bikes occasionally broke a smile before remembering the solemnity of the occasion.
A dissident -- who happens to be Alawite and who had finally just been smuggled to safety in Beirut after being under virtual house arrest for the past year -- explained to me that defecting for a member of his sect carries greater costs than for other Syrians. "A Sunni can escape to Turkey or to his home village; if he's an Alawi, the regime will kill him and his family, or his own village will do it," he said. "He's dead either way."