Syria: Kessab's battle and Armenians' history

The takeover by anti-Damascus rebels of an Armenian village in northern Syria, near the border with Turkey, has triggered a propaganda war which focuses on the position of Syria's Armenians. This highlights core aspects of Armenians' experience since the 1915 genocide, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
2 April 2014

On 21 March 2014 a coalition of Syrian opposition fighters entered the town of Kessab, which is an Armenian-inhabited location in north-west Syria, bordering Turkey from the north and the Mediterranean from the west. This followed the Syrian regime victory in Qalamoun, and its attempt to control the Syrian-Lebanese frontier.

These twin military developments reveal once again that a certain equilibrium has been created out of both internal Syrian realities, but also on the international level, which will make a military victory of one side over the other excluded on both short- and medium-term perspectives. The Geneva-2 conference and preparations for a new 99% presidential election also preclude negotiated solution, and the only remaining alternative is the continuation of the destructive war.

The Kessab operation also triggered a new propaganda war between the regime and the opposition by introducing the Armenian element into it. The situation on the ground remains murky, though it is known that 620 Kessab families have been evacuated to the nearby port city of Latakia, while some dozens of people (mostly elderly) seem to have remained in the town. Pro-regime media talk about jihadists attacking Christians, destroying churches, and pillaging private property; these are often supported with horrible pictures and films originating from elsewhere. They also accuse Turkey of having orchestrated the attack, and portray it yet another anti-Armenian aggression, as well as confirming Turkey's hostile attitude towards Syria as a whole.

The media leaks in Turkey itself, where high-level officials seem to be discussing an act of provocation as a cover for direct Turkish military intervention, give some credit to the Syrian official narrative. This latest scandal led to the shutting down of YouTube in Turkey. The Syrian rebels have also posted footage showing a state of normalcy in Kessab, notwithstanding abandoned streets where rebels guard churches and the remaining population. Now, rebels have to prove that they will secure both lives and property and that Kessab will not become another Raqqa.

In a military sense, the opposition fighters could have taken Kessab at any time over the past year, after they dominated the mountains east of the town. They did not enter the town because it would have embarrassed the Turkish government internationally. In order to understand why Turkey's official position shifted, I turned to Robert Koptaş, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Agos in Istanbul. His explanation centred on internal Turkish politics: namely, close to the municipal elections, the ruling AKP needed to show a "victory" in Syria to its constituency, something that became urgent after the recent opposition losses in the centre of the country.

In a signed article in Agos, Koptaş says that many Armenian organisations both in Syria and Turkey think the attack could only have happened with the agreement and logistical support of Turkey. The Turkish military involvement was underlined by the shooting down of a Syrian warplane - something the Turkish army did not do in 2012 when the Syrian side downed a Turkish F-4 Phantom and killed its two pilots.

The past is present

It has been a while since Arab public opinion has been familiar with the Armenians and their history, or at least they now have “forgotten” it. When I was growing up in Beirut in the 1970s, the dominant narrative was constructed around the Arab national struggle with a focus on Palestine. In this discourse, Armenians were fellow victims struggling for their national rights, and Turkey was on the side of the enemy: Nato and Israel. In recent years things have changed, and gradually - whenever there was political struggle between Armenian organisations and Turkey around the question of genocide - I found aggressive anti-Armenian discourse on the internet. The Arab public reaction in most cases was extremely hostile to the Armenians.

This change was of course influenced by the tectonic political changes in the middle east: national struggles had been defeated and emptied of their content, and in their place a new Islamist discourse emerged which is largely sectarian and lacking Islam’s universality. The coming to power of the AKP in Turkey in 2002 inflamed large sections of Arab public opinion, especially after the mediatised operation of the Mavi Marmara to break the Gaza blockade. This revealed how dispossessed Arab public opinion felt, and that they needed an outside saviour. In the emerging narratives, Armenians became the outsiders.

But I also think Armenian intellectuals in the middle east have a great responsibility. What happened in 1915 is not just an Armenian suffering, a pain we have to mourn alone. The Armenian experience is of universal value, and the necessary lessons have still not been learned by humanity - even now, ninety-nine years later. And I specifically think that the Armenian experience is extremely relevant to the current struggle in Syria.

Two reactions after the opposition seizure of Kessab illustrate my point.

First, a week after the events in Kassab, on 28 March, a “save Kessab” campaign was launched on social media, which quickly received a huge volume.of attention and support. Armenian interest-groups in the United States linked the Kessab events with the Armenian genocide in 1915. Some reports talked about “eighty Armenians killed” by Syrian rebels. Video footage of massacres that happened in totally other contexts were thrown into the amalgam. 

The campaign took a political turn on 24 March, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), an influential Armenian pressure-group, asked Barack Obama's administration to press Turkey to prevent “militant extremists streaming into Kessab from Turkey.” In addition, a parliamentary delegation hastily flew from Yerevan with the stated intention of checking the condition of the Kessab inhabitants now displaced to Latakia. They also met Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and produced a declaration supporting his policies “against terrorism”. For the first time since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the Armenian community was being perceived as being “pro-Bashar”.

A pro-Syrian opposition publication had a short article entitled: “American Armenians distort the image of Syrian revolutionaries to settle old accounts with Turkey.” Armenians, says the article, are accusing Turkey of "supporting ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria and being responsible for the destruction of churches there. They see this demarche as motivated by sectarian revenge, the result of deep-seated national grudges dating back to the Ottoman massacres against the Armenians in the second decade of the past century.”

Second, Fawwaz Tallo, a Syrian opposition figure, commented on the developments in Kessab thus: “Kessab is a Syrian town and not Armenian. The Armenians are guests whom we received one hundred years ago on our Syrian land, and today we liberate our land.” In the same interview, Tallo attacked the idea of federalism, considering it a division of the country on sectarian lines.

The Armenians and Syria

Kessab Armenians are not “guests” who came to Syria a hundred years ago. Kessab Armenians, as well as the Armenian villages of Jebel Musa just across the border to the north, have been on their land for over 1,000 years. They were part of the Cilician Armenian Kingdom (1198-1375), although there are other accounts that indicate that Jebel Mousa Armenians are present there even centuries earlier. Their distinct dialect underlines this fact.

The history of Kessab and Jebel Musa is extremely interesting, as Franz Werfel's novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933) shows, though that is another story. Only two other villages have survived to this day whose people speak the Jebel Musa dialect. One is Anjar in Lebanon, composed of villagers who preferred to leave their land when France decided to transfer Alexandretta to Kemalist Turkey in 1939. The other is Vakifli, a village of 135 individuals, who decided to remain. Vakifli is the only surviving Armenian village in Turkey, from thousands of villages, towns of cities that existed on historic Armenian land before the genocide of 1915.

If Syrian politicians were interested in Armenian historic experience, they would have known that great powers will never send their forces to save a people from massacres. During the Hamidian massacres in 1894-96 in which some 300,000 Ottoman Armenians were killed (that is, in the period of Sultan Abdul Hamid II), the European powers who had legal obligations to defend the minorities of the Ottoman empire condemned the crimes - but did nothing else. During the first world war when the Young Turks deported the entire Armenian population in “death marches”, the great powers promised to bring those responsible to justice. But after the war they had to collaborate with Kemalist Turkey in face of a rising Bolshevik Russia, and the Armenian victims were soon forgotten.

Armenian history shows how notions of “minority” and “majority” are political constructs that change over time. The Armenians were highly appreciated by the Ottoman Sultans, and the Armenian nobility served as the bankers, architects, and industrialists of the Sultan. In eastern Anatolia the situation was different, as local Armenians peasants and townspeople, were in a struggle with armed, nomadic, mainly Kurdish tribes. After the Berlin treaty of 1878 - when the great powers demanded the Ottoman Sultan introduce reforms in the Armenian provinces - Sultan Abdul Hamid decided to eliminate the "Armenian question" by massacres, often using the Kurdish tribes for this operation.

The Young Turks took this policy to new levels by deporting and killing the entire Armenian population. From the 2.2 million Ottoman Armenians in 1914 there were only 250,000 left in Turkey in 1923, and only 60,000 today. But once the Armenian “minority” was physically eliminated, Kurds in Turkey became the new “minority” and victim of repressive policies, in a conflict that still needs to be solved.

History and justice

The conclusion is twofold. First, that the problem is not the existence of “majority” and “minority” - which are shifting and political concepts - but eliminating violence as an instrument of policy-making. Second, that rejecting federalism as a form of “separatism” and insisting on a centralised state, as Fawwaz Tallo does, may not be the best solution.

But there's a third and even bigger conclusion: that the fight for justice and memory continues after any war ends. The apologists of a criminal regime will continue to accuse the victims, and justify the criminals. Others will call you “revengeful” and your struggle “deep-seated grudges”. Hence it is important today to document all the crimes committed in Syria. In the case of the Armenians, the struggle for justice is continuing for ninety-nine years now.

The clash of victimhoods? It does not have to be. In no way should the first genocide of the 20th century be put in the service of a regime massacring its people and a ruler destroying his country to preserve their political monopoly.

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