Turkey denies accusations of promoting ethnic cleansing of Armenians in northern Syria
3,500 people, mainly Armenian Christians, flee north Syrian town after rebel attack
A rebel fighter from the Islamic Front in a church in the Armenian Christian town of Kessab. Photograph: Ammar Abdullah/Reuters
Direct Turkish military involvement in the invasion by fundamentalist insurgents of the Armenian village of Kessab in the far north of Syria has set off alarm bells in Armenian communities in the region and has prompted charges that Turkey is promoting ethnic cleansing of Armenians.
Some 3,500 people – mainly Armenian Christians – fled Kessab late last month after it came under attack from rebel forces.
Turkish media leaks of taped conversations among senior officials, including foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, revealed that an act of provocation which could be a pretext for overt Turkish intervention in Syria, was being considered, although it is not clear that Kessab was meant to be involved.
Turkish analysts contend the government wanted a “victory” ahead of last month’s local elections.
On March 26th, the Turkish foreign ministry said claims of Turkish support for the jihadi offensive were “entirely baseless”. Days later, Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied charges that Turkey had facilitated and provided covering fire for the attack by Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups on Kessab. He said Turkey’s doors were open to receive Armenians who fled Kessab.
The Armenian primate of Lebanon, Bishop Shahe Panossian – who is from Kessab and whose brother was among those who fled the town – told The Irish Times that Turkey had violated a 1952 agreement reached between Ankara and Damascus to demilitarise the tiny enclave where Kessab is located by introducing into the area insurgents from al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups.
Some 60 extended families fled the village but, contrary to some reports, no one was killed or wounded, Bishop Panossian said. Some of those who left were from Aleppo and had sought sanctuary from the conflict in Kessab.
Kessab is the latest problem Armenians had faced since the conflict began, the bishop said. The Armenian church and school in the old city of Damascus are frequently targeted by insurgent mortar fire from the eastern Ghoutta area adjacent to the capital. Last week two children were killed and 36 wounded at the school in the Bab Touma (St Thomas’s Gate) neighbourhood.
Zarmik, who fled Kessab with his family, said that before the attack, the Turkish army, which controls three-quarters of the border of the enclave, had repeatedly prevented infiltration by insurgents seeking access from Turkish territory.
The Armenians felt confident Turkey would continue to prevent incursions and relations between villagers on both sides of the frontier were cordial. “We shared cigarettes and talked, ” he said. He speaks Turkish as well as Armenian, Arabic and English.
On the afternoon of March 20th, Turkish frontier guards began to leave their posts.
“We observed these movements and understood that things were not normal and called the Syrian authorities, who said wait to see what will happen,” said Zarmik. Between 3.30am and 4am, the Syrians sent a group to investigate and a gunfight ensued.
Bombardment began from the Turkish side and insurgents invaded at 5.30am. Afraid they would be killed or taken hostage, the Armenians fled, some in their pyjamas.
“We did not close our doors or bring my pick-up,” Zarmik said. He squeezed his wife, three children, mother, mother-in-law and aunt into his car and drove to the edge of the enclave where the people of Kessab waited, hoping to go home.
The bombing was heavy and they drove on side roads to the Syrian port city of Latakia, which was also targeted, and where, Zarmik said, they were hosted by the church for two or three days.
The Armenians of Latakia were already impoverished from providing shelter for people from Aleppo and elsewhere. This forced many from Kessab to flee to Lebanon. Zarmik and six family members are now living in one room at the home of a relative. His mother has gone to Damascus for an operation.
Trained as an electrical engineer, Zarmik was taking a course in computer science in California when the conflict erupted. He had a restaurant and small shop as well as produce from his land – “our apples are famous all over Syria”.
The situation was difficult in Kessab before the ousting of the Armenians as the village depended on tourism and agriculture. Due to the conflict, “we had no tourists for three years”, he said. “Kessab’s pine and oak forests are all ashes. We were blockaded and had no rice, sugar or tea. We depended on our fields.”
Kessab “has a long history with Turkey”, Zarmik added. Its inhabitants were driven out in 1909 and 1915 by the Ottomans. When France and Britain were dividing up the spoils of the empire after the first World War, Kessab was initially awarded to Turkey along with the Syrian province of Iskandarun (Hatay) and the city of Antioch (Antakia).
“Kessab spent nine months under the Turks around 1928-30 but we paid France to change the border so we would be in Syria. The Turks want to take it back,” he said, tears in his eyes. “Kessab is my village, my place, our roots.”