On March 21, 2014, the fire in Syria reached the Armenian town of Kessab. Syrian Armenians, who officially took a neutral position in the conflict, had hoped that they will remain out danger. Eventually, events showed that was not possible. A coordinated attack by three Islamist formations Ansar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Harakat Sham al-Islam, overrun the town. In a matter of few hours some 670 families were evacuated away from the town to safety in Latakya. On April 1, I talked by telephone to a member of the Kessab Armenian community who is now in Latakya, and wanted to remain anonymous, he said that most of the Kessab inhabitants had reached safety. He said that no single Armenian was killed in the fighting, and no single Armenian was wounded. He also said that there are information that there was looting that took place in Kessab, but no church was destroyed (up to now). He also said that 42 Armenians remained in Kessab after opposition fighters took control of the region, from which 11 have since left going either to Antioch or to Aleppo.
Kessab is an ancient Armenian inhabited region on the north-eastern corner of the Mediterranean. It was part of Jebel Musa Armenian community, which existed on that land centuries before the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia (1080-1375). When deportations of Armenian started during the First World War, Kessab population was deported and most were massacred1 , while Jebel Musa inhabitants resisted and were saved by the Allied navy. This heroic resistance was recorded in Franz Werfel’s novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh. The survivors returned to their land when the Ottomans were defeated in the war, and the region became part of French Syria. But in 1939 Sanjak of Alexandretta was given to Turkey; most Armenians of Jebel Musa left (they are now the inhabitants of Anjar in Lebanon) and only one village remained, Vakifli, with its 135 inhabitants is the only surviving Armenians village of Turkey. Kessab remained on the Syrian side of the new border.
In Syria Kessab is known as a touristic centre. It is also an agricultural land, with fruitful trees of apples and oranges decorating its scenic hills. Armenians lived for decades peacefully with their neighbours. To their south, most of the inhabitants are Alawi Arabs, and to the east they are Turcoman. My Kessab interlocutor said they had very good relations with all their neighbours. When the war came, most of the Turcoman villages were burnt down in the fighting, but eventually opposition fighters took control of the heights.
Although opposition fighters could launch major attacks on Kessab as early as in 2012, they did not receive Turkish support for such an attack. According to sources in Istanbul following closely Turkish policy, Ankara advised opposition armed groups not to attack Kessab. This was mainly because major European capitals had approached Turkish leadership asking them have sensitive policy towards Armenians and Assyrians living in north Syria. This policy was followed by Ankara up to March 2014. The change in policy had to do with internal Turkish political calculations, as well as with the developments in the Syrian conflict. But it was not a Turkish attack on Armenian inhabited Kessab.
The Youtube Scandal
The coordinated attack on March 21 was the result of direct Turkish military planning and participation. The leaked post shows a conversation between Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmad Davudoglu and head of Turkish Intelligence (MIT) Hakan Fidan and other high ranking officials discuss opportunities for military intervention in Syria. This was the pre-municipal elections week, and the nervous AKP leadership needed a “victory”: Turkish leaders and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally had invested a lot in supporting Syrian opposition groups, and it played increasing role in internal Turkish policy. Following the leak Youtube was shut down in Turkey. In Kessab operations, there is clear evidence of Turkish military involvement in the attack – as the shooting down of Syrian MiG-23 warplane by a Turkish missile, as well as eyewitness accounts talk about Turkey artillery taking part in hitting Syrian Army targets.
Clarifying the facts on the ground is important, because an immense propaganda campaign was started just after the Kessab attack.
A week later on March 28 a “save Kessab” campaign was launched on social media, which took a huge volume. Many Armenian Diaspora organizations, especially in Europe and the US, follow the events in Syria only form the perspective of the Armenian community there, out of context, without considering that there is a war in Syria since three years! They fell prey to official propaganda. Armenian interest groups in the US linked the Kessab events with the Armenian genocide. Some reports talked about “80 Armenians killed” by Syrian rebels. Video footage of massacres that happened in totally other contexts were used in the amalgam.
The campaign took a political turn when on March 24 Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), and influential Armenian pressure group, asked Obama administration to pressure Turkey to stop “militant extremists stream into Kessab from Turkey.” And a parliamentary delegation hastily flew from Yerevan with the intention to check the Kessab inhabitants displaced to Latakya met Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and came up with a declaration supporting his policies “against terrorism”. For the first time since the start of the Syrian conflict, the Armenian community was being perceived as being “pro-Bashar”.
The official declaration of the Syrian Coalition was restraint: reminding that while daily massacres were taking place in Syria, there was exaggerated focus on the attack on Kessab. Opposition supporters had been more aggressive on social networks, accusing Armenians of siding with the regime, and questioning whether it was right “to host them” hundred years ago.
On a pro-opposition publication a short article entitled: “American Armenians distort the image of Syrian Revolutionaries to set old accounts with Turkey.” The article says: They (Armenians) say that Turkey supports ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria and they are behind destruction of churches, in a demarche which takes a national character of sectarian revenge which is the result of deep seated grudges dating back to the Ottoman massacres against the Armenians in the second decade of the past century.” Second, Fawwaz Tallo, Syrian opposition figure commenting on the developments in Kessab said: “Kessab is a Syrian town and not Armenian, the Armenians are guests we received them before one hundred years on our Syrian land, and we liberate today our land.” In the same interview, Tallo went on attack against the idea of federalism considering it division of the country on sectarian lines.
The clash of victimhoods ? It does not have to be. In no case the first genocide of the 20 th century should be put in the service of a ruler massacring its people and destroying his country to preserve his political monopoly.
1In 1914 the population of Kessab was 4 760 inhabitants, and with its neighbouring villages, over 9’000 Armenians were deported. Only a minority returned after 1918.