Syria has been gripped by deadly unrest since 2011. According to reports, the Western powers and their regional allies, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are supporting the militants operating inside Syria. Foreign-based militants linked to al-Qaeda terrorist network are using safe houses in southern Turkey to cross into Syria to engage in an insurgency war against government forces.
Christians have been killed in Syria, and many more have fled the country. Christian churches were in Damascus 600 years before the Muslim religion even began but now Christians make up less than 10% of the population. It is almost an identical story to what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christians fear that if the rebels, who are made up of Muslim extremists take over, they will be persecuted and killed.
Kesab is an an ancient Armenian town in northwestern Syria, administratively part of the Latakia Governorate. Administratively, Kesab belongs to Latakia District; one of the governorate’s four Manatiq, and the centre of Kesab nahiyah sub-district. It dates back to the period of Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia. The population today is mainly Armenian with an Alawite Arab minority. They have their own dialect of the Armenian language, which is still in use even among the new generation.
It is situated near the border with Turkey on the slope of Mount Casius. It is located 59 kilometers north of Latakia, just 3 kilometers away from the Turkish border (which is the former Syrian province of Alexandretta), and 9 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea.
The town is surrounded with small villages and farms with a majority of Armenians: Duzaghaj, Esguran, Sev Aghpyur, Chinar, Chakhaljekh, Keorkeuna, Ekizolukh, Baghjaghaz (Upper and Lower), Karadouran, Karadash and the abandoned village of Bashurd.
Kesab, for centuries populated by Armenians, has always been a familiar summer retreat for Armenians from around the country. In these years of fighting, it became a safe haven for countless families from Damascus and Aleppo, who sought refuge there.
In the morning of March 21, the Armenian-populated city of Kesab in Syria became the target of attacks by armed bands that raided the Syrian territory after crossing the Turkish border. Attacks on the Armenian-populated town of Kesab in Syria were launched from three border points in Turkey. Some residents retreated to mountains to avoid danger, others left for Latakia.
In a blatant aggression that proves Erdogan’s involvement in supporting the terrorist groups, a Syrian fighter jet was shot down as it was pursuing the terrorist gangs inside the Syrian territories in Kassab area on Sunday, a military source said. Turkish officials said that the Turkish military shot down a Syrian aircraft. They said the plane had violated Turkish airspace on Turkey, near the Syrian border around the Armenian villages of Kesab.
The incident occurred after nearly 48 hours of attacks on the area of Kesab. Syrian rebels on the Turkish side of the border attacked Kesab, government forces retaliated with both ground and air power, and in the process all the residents of the area — mostly Armenians — were forced to evacuate. They took to Latakia, by boat and by road, until the roads were closed. Although there are no reports of casualties, there are countless reports of missing persons.
Rebels who have entered Kessab are desecrating churches, pillaging houses, and destroying government buildings. The rebels came from the Turkish side of the border and are receiving support from the Turkish military. A few Syrian Armenians have been unable to leave Kessab, and their fate is unclear.
The Armenian mayors of the various villages reported earlier in the day, Sunday, March 23, that the villages are all empty. “Kesab is gone,” they said, referring to the destruction, and to their own loss. However, the town is now being defended by Syrian military who try to repel the militants.
Victims were reported as a result of attacks, but not among Armenians. Fighting in Kesab continues. The Syrian army is trying to push back the offensive forces. Currently the clashes are still going on. The residents of Sev Aghbyur and of other areas that are in danger have been transferred to more secure places.
Rebels fired two rockets into the port city of Latakia, which is the main hub for operations to ship out Syria’s chemical weapons for destruction under a deal reached with the United States and Russia.
Syria has dismissed the military aggression which the Turkish government has waged against Syria’s sovereignty and the sanctity of its land in Kasab area over past two days as reflecting Turkey’s actual involvement in the events in Syria from the beginning of the crisis up to now.
An official source at the Foreign and Expatriates Ministry labeled in a statement on Sunday Turkish aggression as “unprecedented and unjustifiable” that also reflects bankruptcy of Erdogan. The aggression, the source noted, included firing tank and artillery shells on the Syrian territories to secure coverage for the armed terrorist groups to enter into Syria from the Turkish land.
It reiterated that these “serious” Turkish military attacks reflect Erdogan’s failure to handle the needs of the Turkish people who have rejected the Turkish government’s hostile policies against Syria as they also rejected the corruption which Erdogan is involved and uncovering the involvement which led to the Turkish people to take part in massive protests against Erdogan demanding the departure of his regime.
“This escalation came in the framework of the aggressive policies of Erdogan’s government and its openly-provided support to the armed terrorist groups,” said the source, adding that the terrorist groups have taken up the Turkish lands as a shelter, springboard and arming center for them to kill innocent Syrians and destroy the infrastructure of the Syrian people.
Turkey made a point of not allowing Syrian planes within a few kilometers of their shared border. The Syrian aircraft that was shot down reinforced that policy. Syria accused the Turkish government of aggression.
A cousin of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hilal al-Assad, local head of the National Defence Force militia in the coastal province of Latakia, where the Assad family originates, and seven of his fighters were killed in clashes with the Nusra Front and other Islamist brigades, was killed on Sunday in battles with Islamist rebels near the border with Turkey, activists and state media said. The National Defence Force is a militia set up to support the army in its three-year battle with rebels seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
Syria demands Erdogan government halt its aggression, support terrorism and show respect to the Security Council’s relevant resolutions, the Foreign Ministry source said.
It also voiced Syria’s demand the Turkish government “refrain from involving Turkish army in unavailing and unjustifiable adventures against a neighboring country that have only the feelings of fraternity and good-neighborliness towards the Turkish people and the desire to continue good bilateral relations that serve the two neighboring countries and their peoples”.
Syria, today, is divided among the various forces who control specific areas of the country. The rebels have been unable to take or keep the north, or the Syrian seacoast. This attack from beyond Syria’s borders — from Turkey to the north — may be an effort by the rebels to try to reach and take first the north (the area around Kesab), and then the seacoast areas.
The involvement of Turkey, in support of the rebels fighting against Bashar Assad’s government, leaves the Armenians stuck in the middle, hostages of a situation in which they are the victims, not the actors.
Syria has a proud record of having helped the Armenian refugees during and after the Genocide. Syrian-Armenians have thrived and their culture has been embraced in Syria. Syrians know well what happened to the Armenians in 1915, on their land, a part of the Ottoman Empire back then.
One of the world’s oldest Christian communities going back to ancient Antioch and Damascus in the first century AD, Syria’s Christians are fearful of an uncertain future in a country that is becoming very hostile against minorities, after “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) jihadists have been massacring and expelling Christians and Muslim Shia Alawites from their towns and villages.
The Armenians are staying on the sidelines and out of the fighting. No doubt they fear an unknown future. I hope that Syria will continue to protect its Armenian population, regardless of the outcome of the current revolution, and will take steps to protect Armenian and Syrian history.
The history of the region of Kesab
The region of Kesab was part of the ancient civilization that spread from the Syrian coasts up to the Orontes River, six millennia ago. During the Seleucid period the Kesab region was at the centre of the triad comprised Antioch, Seleucia and Laodicea.
The Laodicea-Seleucia coastal road passed by the Karadouran bay whereas the Laodicea-Antioch road passed through the Duzaghaj valley. The Mount Casius at those times, was believed to have been the sanctuary of Zeus.
During the reign of the ruler of the short-lived Armenian Empire Tigranes The Great, in the 1st century BC, and later the Roman era, the Syrian coast flourished greatly and had a positive affect on the development of the Kesab region.
Being located on the borders of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, the region of Kesab was gradually developing by its Armenian migrants. A research conducted on the peculiarities of the Kesab Armenian dialect and the dialects of the Armenians in the region of Alexandretta and Suweidiyeh, shows that the Armenians of Kesab and the surrounding villages are the remainders of migrants who came from the region of Antioch.
The migration of the Armenians to the region increased in the 14th and the 15th centuries, during the Mamluk and the Ottoman periods, in an attempt to avoid persecutions, trying to find much more safer mountainous regions such as Kesab and Musa Dagh.
The first Armenian refugees settled in the area now called Esguran. After a period they moved uphill and settled in the area now called the town of Kesab, turning it to a centre of the whole region and the destination of new refugees.
During the 1850s Kesab turned into a mission field with the arrival of Evangelical and Catholic missionaries rising anger among the Armenians of the region who were following the Armenian Apostolic Church. In the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Kesab region was around 6000 (all Armenians), with more than 20 schools, as a result of denominational and political divisions.
The first disaster in Kesab happened in April 1909. This calamity costed the Armenians 161 deaths and a massive material loss. After the event, Catholicos Sahag I Khabaian visited Kesab. The Armenian Genocide in 1915 proved even more destructive.
After the ceasefire, the Armenians who survived the genocide returned to Kesab in a process that lasted till 1920. But the eastern and northern areas of the region still remained unsecured, because they were constantly vulnerable to attacks from neighboring Turkish villages. A voluntary group of 40 men successfully foiled many attempts by bandits to invade the region at that time.
In 1922, peace was established after the entrance of the French troops into Kesab, but on the 5th of July 1938, the Turkish army entered the Sanjak of Alexandretta and Antioch, in an agreement with the French colonial authorities, and the region was renamed as the province of Hatay Province.
Before the start of World War II, in order to prevent Turkey forming an alliance with Germany, the French (who held a mandate over Syria) initiated a referendum, in 1939, to determine the future of Alexandretta, the Sanjak of Iskenderun.
By a few dozen votes, it was determined that the entire region would be transferred to Turkey. Musa Ler (or Musa Dagh) and Kesab were part of that region and so they too were to go back to Turkish domination. The residents of Musa Dagh left the region, and only the Vakif village remained Armenian.
The residents of Kesab, however, took up arms and fought for nine months to resist the decision to become a part of Turkey. It is said that it was with the mediation of a high-ranking cardinal of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Krikor Aghajanian, who interceded with the Pope, who sought French support to keep Kesab within Syria.
Many Armenians left Kesab for Lebanon or took refuge in the mountains. Many important personalities visited Kesab during that time. On 23 June 1939, the Hatay government was officially dissolved and the whole region became part of Turkey.
By the efforts of the Armenian community of Paris, Cardinal Krikor Bedros Aghajanian and the Papal representative to Syria and Lebanon Remi Leprert, many parts of Kesab inhabited by Armenians were separated from Turkey and placed within the Syrian boundaries.
The result of the annexation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta proved disastrous for the Armenians of Kesab: Mount Casius was attached to the Turkish side including their farms, properties, laurel tree forests and the grazing lands located in the mountain’s bosoms and valleys that once used to belong to the native Armenians.
Besides, with this annexation, the Armenians of the town were also deprived from their traditional and historical Barlum Monastery, where the inhabitants used to celebrate the feast of Surp Asdvadzadzin (feast of Virgin Mary) during the month of August of each year.