KESSAB, Syria—The predominantly Armenian-populated town of Kessab has been emptied after rebel forces attacked the region in a bid to control strategic points in the area.
Kessab has been the target of three days of brutal cross-border attacks from Turkey by al-Qaeda affiliated armed bands, which have cost 80 lives and forced the civilian population of the area to flee to neighboring hills, with many seeking safe-haven in the nearby cities of Latakia and Basit.
According to reports, Kessab and its surrounding villages are now largely under the control of rebels.
“According to a military source, units of the armed forces have since morning been directing fatal strikes to the terrorist groups which infiltrated the border from Turkey in Kassab area, inflicting heavy losses upon them,” reported the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 23.
Perched in the northwestern corner of Syria, near the border with Turkey, Kessab had, until very recently, evaded major battles between the army and rebels. Many Syrian Armenians had taken refuge there because of the relative calm in the area over the past three years.
In a written statement, the Armenian National Committee—International, condemned the attacks and Turkey’s active role in aiding and abetting extremist groups in their targeted attacks against the Christian and minority populations in Syria. “For months, we have warned the international community of the imminent threat posed by extremist foreign fighters against the Christian minority population in Syria,” noted the ANC-I statement. “These vicious and unprompted attacks against the Armenian-populated town and villages of Kessab are the latest examples of this violence, actively encouraged by neighboring Turkey. We call upon all states with any influence in the Syrian conflict to use all available means to stop these attacks against the peaceful civilian population of Kessab, to allow them to return to their homes in safety and security. In the last one hundred years, this is the third time that the Armenians are being forced to leave Kessab and in all three cases, Turkey is the aggressor or on the side of the aggressors.”
According to news reports, the armed incursion began on Friday, March 21, 2014, at 5:45a.m., with rebels associated with Al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham crossing the Turkish border and attacking the Armenian civilian population of Kessab. The attackers immediately seized two guard posts overlooking Kessab, including a strategic hill known as Observatory 45 and later took over the border crossing point with Turkey. Snipers targeted the civilian population and launched mortar attacks on the town and the surrounding villages.
According to eyewitness accounts, the attackers crossed the Turkish border with Syria openly passing through Turkish military barracks. According to Turkish media reports, the attackers carried their injured back to Turkey for treatment in the town of Yayladagi.
Some 670 Armenian families, the majority of the population of Kessab, were evacuated by the local Armenian community leadership to safer areas in neighboring Basit and Latakia. Ten to fifteen families with relations too elderly to move were either unable to leave or chose to stay in their homes.
On Saturday, March 22, Syrian troops launched a counteroffensive in an attempt to regain the border crossing point, eye-witnesses and state media reported. However, on Sunday, March 23, the extremist groups once again entered the town of Kessab, took the remaining Armenian families hostage, desecrated the town’s three Armenian churches, pillaging local residences and occupying the town and surrounding villages.
Located in the northwestern corner of Syria, near the border with Turkey, Kessab had, until very recently evaded major battles in the Syrian conflict. The local Armenian population had increased in recently years with the city serving as safe-haven for those fleeing from the war-torn cities of Yacubiye, Rakka and Aleppo.
Turkey Downs Syrian Fighter Jet
On March 23, Turkey said its fighter jets shot down a Syrian jet after it crossed into Turkish airspace.
Syria denied that its jet had violated Turkish airspace and, according to Agence France-Presse, accused Turkey of “a flagrant act of aggression that is evidence of Erdoğan’s support for terrorist groups.” The MIG-23 jets were reportedly flying a support mission to assist ground forces repelling extremist fighters which had infiltrated from Turkey into Kessab.
“The international community should restrain Turkey to stop this and similar anti-Armenian operations and in general it antagonistic policy against Armenia and the Armenian people,” concludes the ANC International’s statement.