Christians flee Syria’s Kessab, Twitter cries atrocities, Armenia accuses Turkey
Published time: March 31, 2014 21:06
Edited time: March 31, 2014 22:03
Edited time: March 31, 2014 22:03
The Syrian Army is trying to retake the Christian majority town of Kessab reportedly seized by al-Qaeda-linked forces. The attack made hundreds of ethnic Armenians flee and caused international outcry with Armenia blaming Turkey for supporting extremists.
Kessab – located in Syria’s Latakia province, near the border with Turkey – fell to rebels sparking a fierce battle in the media as conflicting reports are coming in about the events in the town which is home to over 2,000 ethnic Armenians.
Reportedly, on March 21, extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda crossed into Syria from Turkey and seized the town after clashes with Syrian government troops and local self-defense squads.
According to the Armenian side, the jihadists were supported by Turkish forces. Ankara denied the allegations as “totally unfounded and untrue”.
“We consider the efforts of such circles, moving from these claims, to draw an analogy between the developments in the Kessab region and the painful incidents of the past as confrontational political propaganda attempt and particularly condemn it,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement last week.
The relations between Armenia and Turkey have long been strained over Ankara’s refusal to recognize Armenian genocide after WWI.
Arman Saakyan, Armenian MP from the Republican Party has recently returned from the Syrian town of Latakia, where he managed to talk to Kessab refugees. He told RT that the armed groups got into Syria’s Kessab from Turkish soil.
“In the early hours on Saturday [March 22] Turkish border guards disappeared and terrorists, representatives of different countries, attacked Kessab from there with the support of artillery,” he said.
With the help of local self-defense forces and the Syrian army the majority of ethnic Armenians managed to flee Kessab and are currently resided on the territory of an Armenian church in the coastal city of Latakia, the parliament member said. Only some elderly people still remain in the town "occupied by militants from the al-Nusra [Front],” he added.
A group of residents found shelter in St. George's Armenian monastery in Latakia, about 60 km from Kessab, according to a stringer for RT video agency Ruptly.
“Everyone gathered and started going towards Al-Nabien to be safe. We along with the army and the national defense forces we saved as many as we could,” Father Maron, a priest from the town told Ruptly. “40 more people remained in Kessab - mostly the old and immobile - but we managed to gather the majority and most of the families came to Latakia.”
The residents of the town managed to escape in the very last moment before “their homes were attacked,” Bugus Kazaryan, the chair of the Armenian Community Council in Latakia told RT. He said around 850 families from Kessab – “not only Armenians, but also residents of other nationalities” – have currently taken shelter in Latakia.
They fled the town in order to let the Syrian Army “destroy the terrorists who only came to Syria to kill, they’ve got no other goals,” Kazaryan said.
During the past several days a number of reports have been circulating in media and online, claiming violent atrocities by rebels, manslaughter of Armenians in the area. One of the videos is said to show the massacre of Armenians in Kessab by rebels. Extremely graphic footage, picked-up by several media and web blogs, showed unknown people being shot in the heads by unidentified attackers.
However, the footage apparently had nothing to do with Kessab. The video posted online mid-March by Al-Nusra Front allegedly depicts execution of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo last December. So far, there is no confirmed information that any of Kessab’s civilians died due to fighting.
Other reports suggested that rebels desecrated and destroyed historic churches in the area, as they entered the town. The reports are yet to be independently verified. A number of YouTube videos apparently shot by militants showed the deserted town of Kessab, while some churches featured in the videos appeared to be untouched at the moment of filming.
During the past weekend, reports about Kessab rapidly spread on social networks with allegations emerging of extremists perpetrating brutal atrocities against ethnic Armenians.
The Twitter storm was also provoked by the news, with Kim Kardashian, Cher and Jared Leto supporting the call for help from the city’s Armenians. A special hashtag #SaveKessab has become one of the most popular.
Ethnic Armenians who fled the area urged Armenian Diaspora to apply “to their government, the UN or any other structures to interfere in this case.”
“All we want is to live. If you ignore our appeal, we will be violently killed by extremists, same as it happened in Aleppo…and other places on the Syrian territory,” says the statement on Facebook drafted by Armenian MP Arman Saakyan.
“Today, on Mother’s Day, our beautiful city was violently attacked from Al-Qaeda and the extremist group Front Al-Nusra, which get the full military and material and technical support from the side of the Turkish government.
We woke up long before sunset, horrified by the sounds of the missiles which were falling on our city. Thousands of terrorists reached the border of our city. The Turkish side conducts the policy of destroying our beautiful Kessab exactly on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in the Osman Empire,” Armenians said in the statement.
“They killed Armenians three times in the same location: in 1909, 1913, and now in 2014,” Ja’afari added, stressing that Turkish tanks and artillery cover the rebel forces and help them.
The attack on Kessab was reportedly carried out by fighters from the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-linked jihadist group in Syria, and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham brigade, part of the Islamic Front alliance. Militants posing with brigade's flag near Kasab border-crossing are seen in the photo below, which was likely taken shortly after the seizure of the checkpoint.
An amateur video circulated on the internet appears to show armed men freely strolling through the Kessab checkpoint, apparently at the Turkish-Syrian border, with no border guards seen on either side.
Earlier in the week, the Syrian army launched an operation to force the militants out of the town, located in a region of strategic importance for Damascus. In the course of the three year civil war, Assad's army has already lost control of most border crossings. It had though held on to Kessab, a gateway to the province of Latakia which has remained an Assad stronghold. By seizing the town, militants got their first outpost on the Mediterranean Sea.
Echoing claims coming from Yerevan, Syrian authorities also pointed the finger at Ankara for providing “cover for this terrorist attack,” cited Reuters.
Adding fuel to the fire, on March 23 Turkey shot down a Syrian Air Force jet at the Kessab crossing. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the plane was intercepted after it violated his country’s airspace.
Damascus in response accused Ankara of “blatant aggression,” saying the fighter jet had been over Syria. The Syrian pilot said that a Turksih aircraft fired a missile at him while he was pursuing terrorists within Syrian territories, SANA agency reported.
Moscow expressed concern over the attack on Kessab, saying that the activities of the rebel forces are aimed at wrecking the chemical demilitarization of Syria.
“The seizure by extremists of the town of Kessab elicited a broad response in Armenian communities throughout the world. A demonstration took place in front of the UN office in Yerevan with the demand for the persecution against ethno-confessional minorities by illegal armed units to be put an end to in Syria. Simultaneously, the leadership of the Republic of Armenia expressed its gratitude to the Syrian government for the defense of the Armenian population,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, quoted the Voice of Russia.
Washington said it was “deeply troubled” by the events.
“We are deeply troubled by recent fighting and violence that is endangering the Armenian community in Kessab, Syria and has forced many to flee,” said State Department Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf.
“All civilians, as well as their places of worship, must be protected,” she said, “We have long had concerns about the threat posed by violent extremists and this latest threat to the Armenian community in Syria only underscores this further,” Harf added.
Syrians suffer as al-Qaeda, Chechen fighters pursue their own agendas: analysts
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
In the past year, a plethora of press reports and video clips have surfaced on Chechens, among other Caucasus fighters, now fighting alongside Islamist groups in Syria.
These Chechens have fought alongside the al-Qaeda-linked "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, while experiencing fractures and tensions with these groups, as each seeks to establish its own caliphate in the region, analysts told Al-Shorfa.
"The presence of Chechen fighters in Syria is linked to al-Qaeda and its branches in Syria," said strategy analyst Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, who is retired from the Egyptian army. "Since they began arriving, they joined ISIL, JAN and other battalions and factions" that subscribe to the ideology of al-Qaeda.
However, the on-going dispute between ISIL and JAN and other concerns drove a number of Chechen mujahideen to break away and form independent fighting factions and battalions of their own while retaining full co-ordination with al-Qaeda groups in military engagements against the Syrian regime, he added.
Czech magazine Tyden reported that many of the Chechen fighters in Syria belong to the Caucasus Emirate, an umbrella group that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in the Caucasus.
Maj. Gen. Wael Abdul Muttalib, researcher at the Cairo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, said the leaders of Chechen militias in the Caucasus "view fighting in Syria as a great opportunity to train their fighters and use the combat experience".
"The Chechen presence in Syria has gone beyond participation in the fighting and turned it into an opportunity to train young [Chechens] for a limited period of time, after which they return to the Caucasus area," he said.
In March 2013, a foreign fighter going by the name Abu Omar al-Chechen announced the creation of "Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar" under his command, according to the Chechen news agency Kavkaz Centre.
Late in the year, al-Chechen swore allegiance to ISIL, and was replaced by another Chechen commander, Salaheddine, "as most Chechens in Syria refuse to pay allegiance" to ISIL, the BBC reported.
Around the same time, the second in command to Abu Omar al-Chechen, Saifullah, and a group of his fighters pledged allegiance to JAN, Kavkaz Centre said.
Salaheddine al-Chechen and his deputy Abdul Karim Krymsky have spoken out against the fighting between ISIL and other opposition factions, and Krymsky also has been vocal in his condemnation of ISIL's tactics and attitude towards the local population, saying that the group has brutalised and murdered civilians, according to EA WorldView, a news and analysis source based at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
"Tens and hundreds of corpses, mass graves, became a kind of calling card for ISIL wherever it went," Krymsky told Kavkaz Centre in early March.
"Most worryingly, these events came to be part of everyday life, whereby ISIL was not ashamed of its crimes," he added.
CHECHENS HAVE ALSO COMMITTED ATROCITIES AMOUNTING TO 'WAR CRIMES'
Strategy analyst Ali said that Chechen fighters have also committed atrocities, most linked to the actions of al-Qaeda as a whole.
Several videos recorded by Chechen fighters after battles show bodies of people who have been executed, he said.
"Chechen fighters are known for their fierceness in battle, which has reached a level of criminality and commitment of what could be classified as war crimes," he added. "Among their most notable military engagements was their role in the Aleppo airport battle and their subsequent elimination of surrendered fighters by beheading."
Czech magazine Tyden reported on its website in August that after the takeover of Aleppo airport, Chechens slit the throats of and beheaded captured members of the military.
"This is the first time Chechens have been confirmed to be fighting outside their territory after doubts about their involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq," Ali said.
Chechen and Caucasus fighters in Syria fall under four main groups, each headed by its own commander, namely: Jund al-Sham, led by Muslim Abu al-Waleed al-Chechen, Omar al-Chechen group, Saifullah al-Chechen group and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar formerly led by Salaheddine al-Chechen, who was recently reported to have died, media and relief activist Faisal al-Ahmed, who is from Aleppo, told Al-Shorfa.
Chechens in Syria have fought in battles including the fight for Kafr al-Hamra village, the storming of the French hospital, the attack on Handarat air defence battalion and the battle of Aleppo Central Prison, in addition to battles in Deraa and rural Latakia, he said.
In Latakia, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was linked to the August massacre of 190 Syrian civilians.
It was among five armed opposition groups "responsible for specific incidents that amount to war crimes" including shootings, stabbings and in some cases executions of entire families, Human Rights Watch said.
In Kafr al-Hamra, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was responsible for an August car bomb blast that killed more than 50 people, according to Echo Kavkaz Media Centre.
'BIGGEST LOSER IS THE SYRIAN PEOPLE'
"Although the Chechen groups are independent, or claim to be independent, from other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, they take part in military operations with both ISIL and JAN according to the geographical area they are in," relief activist al-Ahmed said.
In the recent battles on the coast, these groups took part in military operations in co-ordination with JAN, and are now in full co-operation with ISIL in Aleppo, he said.
These fighters, therefore, are involved in the same war crimes attributed to ISIL and JAN, and have imposed the same pressures on civilians in terms of sharia law and punishment, he said.
"The Syrian people were thrust into the internal wars between these armed groups, and were forced to live in an atmosphere alien to their own lifestyle which is known for its religious and moral tolerance," he added.
"All armed Islamist groups in Syria, especially those affiliated to al-Qaeda, such as ISIL and JAN, and Chechen groups, have their own goals represented in establishing their own Islamic emirate," he added.
"The biggest loser is the Syrian people whose material and psychological capabilities have been exhausted in their three-year revolution," al-Ahmed said.
Meanwhile in al-Raqa, where ISIL and JAN have committed grave atrocities, Chechens who sometimes belong to these groups have been seen living expensively and ostentatiously, Al-Hayat reported in March.
Main Syrian opposition forces have rejected calls for foreign jihadists to join the fight in Syria.
"Our official position as the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) […] is that we thank them but reject any calls for jihad in Syria," Luay al-Meqdad, media and political co-ordinator for the FSA, told AFP last April.
"We reject any presence of foreign fighters, regardless of where they are from," he said.