REBEL ASSAULT ON KASAB, SYRIA, REVIVES DARK MEMORIES FOR ARMENIANS
Los Angeles Times, CA
April 4 2014
It’s unclear how many died in the attack in Latakia province, but
much of the anger is directed at Turkey for allegedly facilitating it.
BEIRUT — A rebel assault on the northern Syrian town of Kasab near
the Turkish border has sparked a furor among Armenians worldwide and
revived dark memories of the Ottoman-era genocide.
It’s unclear how many civilian casualties occurred in the previously
tranquil home to about 2,500 Armenian Christians. But the incident,
which has also heightened tension between Turkey and Syria, provides
a sharp new focus for the propaganda wars between the government of
Syrian President Bashar Assad and the disparate rebel forces that
have been trying to topple him for three years.
It has also triggered a raging battle on social media, with
pro-opposition activists on the defensive against what they call
an Internet disinformation campaign by supporters of the Assad
government. Syrian officials, meanwhile, have accused Turkey of backing
an Al Qaeda-led offensive from its territory with tanks and aircraft.
Thousands of Syrian rebels, many of them with Islamist radical groups,
including some linked to Al Qaeda, surged across the Turkish-Syrian
border March 21 and seized a swath of mountainous territory in
northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, including Kasab.
Many residents of the town have since fled, like their ancestors who
survived the genocide of the early 20th century, joining the legions
of Syrians displaced by the war. The United Nations says about 1,550
displaced families from Kasab are receiving aid in the city of Latakia,
which is under Syrian government control.
The large-scale rebel strike appeared to catch the thinly stretched
Syrian military off guard, though the government says its forces
have won back terrain in a punishing counterattack close to the
porous border. Fierce fighting continued Thursday, both sides said. An
opposition monitoring group has reported more than 300 fighters killed,
including rebels and loyalists, while pro-government activists have
said that more than 1,000 rebels have been killed in almost two weeks
On March 28, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Turkish
Consulate in Los Angeles to assail Turkey — which has called for
Assad’s ouster and has long harbored rebel fighters — for helping
facilitate the Kasab attack. Demonstrators waved U.S., Syrian and
Armenian flags and hoisted signs bearing messages such as “Freedom
from Turkish aggression.”
Among those plunging into the Internet fray is Kim Kardashian, a
Los Angeles-based celebrity of Armenian heritage, who has sent out
a number of messages on Twitter urging followers to marshal their
mobile devices in support of Kasab.
“If you don’t know what’s going on in Kessab please google it, its
heart breaking!” Kardashian tweeted, using an alternate spelling of
the town’s name. “Let’s get this trending!!!!”
During the Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year, social media and
the Internet have become virtual fronts in the war fueled by sectarian
rivalries and the geostrategic interests of other nations. Each side
has accused the other of inflammatory manipulation of online images and
serial distortion of events in an attempt to score propaganda points.
In the case of Kasab, the painful history of Armenians in Turkey
weighs heavily in the debate.
Armenian groups, scholars and many governments say Ottoman forces
committed genocide against ethnic Armenians during and after World
War I, killing more than a million people and driving multitudes from
their homes, including many who ended up in current-day Syria. Turkish
authorities have long denied any campaign of systematic extermination
and say those who died were casualties of war, famine and disease.
Syria’s Christian minority is generally seen as backing the Syrian
government, though many Christians also seek a more democratic
Elsewhere in Syria, Islamist radicals have defaced churches and
kidnapped Christian clerics and nuns. A pair of bishops and an Italian
Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall’Oglio, have been among those abducted,
reportedly by Islamist rebels.
In Kasab, opposition forces have rejected Internet accounts of
Christians being killed and churches being vandalized.
“Our battle is not a sectarian one,” Ahmad Jarba, head of the
U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition exiled opposition group,
said during a visit this week to a rebel-controlled area in Latakia
province, according to a video posted on YouTube. “Our battle is
with this ruling mafia…. It is not with the Alawites, nor with the
Armenians, or the Christians.”
Jarba’s visit highlighted the symbolic value the opposition places
on maintaining pressure on Assad’s native province, which is also
the homeland of his ultra-loyalist Alawite minority sect and of
many commanders in the Syrian military and security apparatus. Still,
experts say the likelihood of rebels pushing deep into heavily defended
Latakia appears slim.
With government forces advancing on several fronts and many rebels
turning in their weapons, the opposition has touted the Latakia
offensive as evidence that it can still strike at Assad’s ancestral
home and along the Mediterranean coast.
“Whoever thinks there is pressure on us to stop this battle is
delusional and wrong,” Jarba told the rebels gathered for his visit.
His appearance also dramatized how even “moderate” U.S.-backed
opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army — ostensibly under the
umbrella of Jarba’s coalition — coordinate in the field with extremist
Islamist factions. Both sides in the war have reported that the rebels
fighting in Latakia include elements of Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda
franchise deemed a terrorist organization by Washington. At least one
Free Syrian Army-affiliated faction, the Syrian Revolutionary Front,
is also participating.
In August, a rebel sweep into a different area of Latakia resulted in
the executions of scores of pro-government civilians and the kidnapping
of hundreds more, mostly women and children, in predominantly Alawite
villages, according to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, a New
York-based watchdog group. Many Alawite civilians remain hostages
from that offensive.
U.S. officials who back the Syrian opposition have voiced concern
about the makeup of the forces that overran Kasab. U.S. Sen. Robert
Menendez (D-N.J.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
said in a letter to constituents that he was “gravely concerned” about
reports of the attack “by Al Qaeda-linked terrorists based in Turkey.”
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special
correspondent Bulos from Amman, Jordan.