A historic Christian Armenian town situated just a mile from the Turkish border in northwest Syria, Kessab is now among the war’s many casualties. On the morning of 21 March, the town was seized by opposition fighters from three Islamic militant groups: Jabhat al-Nusra, Sham al-Islam, and Ansar al-Sham. For Armenians around the world, the event conjured memories of past traumas as one of two remaining Armenian areas that survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 was depopulated. The last remaining Armenian village in Turkey, Vakıflı, located across the border, is now a safe haven for some of Kessab’s former residents. Three weeks after the capture of Kessab, the event continues to take on a life of its own as various factions in the conflict seek to instrumentalize the tragedy to construct their own versions of reality, a phenomenon that could be called Syria’s Rashomon effect.
[View of Kessab and Surrounding Environs (Photo courtesy of Stefan Winter)]
Kessab was relatively quiet over the last three years but has new value as a launching point for an opposition campaign against the coastal town of Latakia, which lies within the regime’s Alawite heartland. Militants call this campaign al-Anfal (“The Spoils”), a label taken from a chapter title of the Quran connoting the hope of defeating Asad against changing odds after a recent opposition defeat in Yabrud near Damascus. Since the uprising, Kessab’s grassroots militias took up arms to repel militants who sought to enter the mountains. The morning of the raid, Turkey opened the border allowing militias to cross into Syria perhaps to tip the balance against recent Asad gains in the south. However, many Armenians, including the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and subsequent Armenian activists quickly linked Turkey’s role in Kessab three weeks ago to the 1915 Armenian Genocide—an event commemorated later this month on 24 April.
While dismissed by the opposition, Armenian fears are not completely baseless. Some Islamist opposition militias carry their own unique brand of takfiri sectarianism evidenced by videoed beheadings and forced conversions of Shiites and Christians. Events like the depopulation of Kessab do little to assuage Armenian fears of annihilation that remain alive after a century. Although guerilla groups are often in conflict with one another, they have in common attacks Christian villages, conversion of churches into militia headquarters as in Raqqa, desecration and looting of religious objects, kidnapping and forcibly converting Christians to Islam, and summarily executing minorities and even fellow Sunni Muslim fighters by mistake in the streets. Yet, aside from the removal of a cross from a church rooftop, there was no mass destruction in Kessab when it was captured.
[Photo of Alleged Cross Destruction Within a Church in Kessab]
The Armenian community continues to protest Kessab’s capture. The #SaveKessab campaign launched via social media contains many important facts about Kessab, but the nature of circulation on the internet also afforded the spreading of erroneous information. True, the current depopulation of Kessab echoes two other evacuations in the last century—1909 and 1915—and Turkey was involved in each instance. But what has not been clarified is that although eighty people were reported as killed in the raid by Asbarez, an Armenian news service, only two casualties are confirmed as Armenian to date. While those deaths are important, diaspora Armenians continue to publish exaggerated articles claiming “a NATO-backed second genocide” is taking place in Kessab. Other Armenian news services have offered more balanced coverage, The Armenian Weekly focused on the two thousand Armenians evacuated to Latakia where they are sheltered in the Virgin Mary Mother of God Armenian Church and given humanitarian assistance by the Armenian Red Cross. The news service has also focused on the search for ten missing Kessab Armenians who never made it to Latakia.
So, why did Armenians evacuate Kessab? Here it is useful to examine al-Nusra’s capture of the Aramaic-speaking town of Maaloula outside Damascus in September 2013—a place of little to no strategic military value. Symbolism trumped strategy in Maaloula as the Mar Taqla monastery, named after an early Christian saint who fled Roman persecution interned within its walls, was seized and thirteen of its nuns were held captive for three months. The nuns were released on 9 March after Qatar reportedly ransomed them for sixteen million dollars. Over the last two years, the depopulation of Christians in Homs (reduced to ten percent of its original prewar size), Maaloula, and Kessab have magnified existing fears that Syria’s Christians may not survive Syria’s war.
[Kessab Armenians attend mass after arrival in Latakia]
Considering the deep connections between Armenian communities over several centuries, many recently exiled residents who fled Kessab were internally displaced Armenians from Aleppo who fled the fighting in August 2012. Now triple exiled, these refugees huddle in the Armenian Church in Latakia on the coast awaiting their fate, joining over seven million displaced Syrians internally and regionally. Certainly, the disappearance of two thousand Armenians in Kessab may mean little numerically in the larger tragedy of 140,000 dead over the last three years. What it does offer is another way of viewing a conflict that threatens to erase century-old communities that comprise Syria’s mosaic of over sixteen religious and ethnic communities.
A Brief History of Syria’s Armenians
When the conflict began three years ago, I was in the process of writing a history of Syria’s early Armenian community. The Armenian community in Syria is divided between a smaller minority of Armenians (arman qadim) who arrived during the Cilician Kingdom of Armenia which fell in 1375 and a majority of Armenians who are descendants of refugees from the Genocide. Aleppo—a major deportation hub during World War I—houses most of Syria’s Armenian population. Despite the ongoing presence of Armenians in Syria Fawwaz Tallo, a Syrian opposition figure, erroneously asserted, “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.” Tallo’s claim is pure hyperbole that seeks to alienate Armenians from Syria’s broader history during a time of national struggle. Historical documents tell a different story—Kessab is among the most ancient Armenian settlements in the entire region and among the last to survive the ethnic cleansing and wars of the last century.
As I write this essay, placed on my desk are Ottoman fiscal records (called Mufassal Tahrir Defteri) that document the steady growth of Armenians from the sixteenth century forward as they fled a rebellion (celali) in the east where Armenians lived and crop failures brought on by the Little Ice Age in the 1590s. The Armenian community was quite visible in sixteenth century Aleppo as the historic Christian Judayda quarter took shape in the city, eventually housing nearly a quarter of the city’s population by the eighteenth century. That same survey charts Kessab’s expansion in the first decades of the sixteenth century: 1526: twenty-six families, 1536: thirty families, 1550: sixty-one families. As violence intensified in the Ottoman Empire, beginning with the Hamidiye Massacres (1894-1896), Armenians fled more frequently to nearby Syrian lands.
During the genocide, Syria housed the killing fields where mass unmarked graves can be located along the deportation route in Ras al-‘Ein, Raqqa, Der ez-Zor, and Shaddadeh. As Der ez-Zor lay in ruin after three years of war, it was hard to forget that almost every Deri has an Armenian “hababah” (“grandmother” in the local dialect) and therefore have familial links to events of 1915. After World War I, Syria was overrun with refugees numbering 100,000 Armenians by the 1920s. Originally refugee camps, Armenian neighborhoods developed in Suleymaniyah, Azziziah, and Maydan (Armenian: “Nor Kyugh”) in Aleppo, while the old harat al-arman outside Bab Sharqi in Damascus still sports the original barakat design of the Armenian refugee camp with stucco walls and tin roofs.
In 1928, Armenians were naturalized as Syrian citizens by French colonial powers with the hope of thwarting nationalist stirrings during an election year. The result of French meddling with the Armenian minority was a category historian Keith Watenpaugh calls “not quite Syrian.” In an environment of colonial “divide and rule” policies, Syria’s minorities were considered collaborator classes while the Sunni bourgeoisie agitated for independence from French rule. Early experimentation with liberal democracy showed some signs of political inclusion as Armenians were elected to the constituent assembly. During the instability of the 1960s and subsequent ascendancy of Hafiz al-Asad, Armenians showed a decline in political participation that continues today.
Analyst Andrew Tabler adopted the regime’s myths when he told NPR “[Syrian Christians get] very good business contracts, positions in government and the Syrian military….They get preferential treatment and protection of their places of worship.” In this line of thinking, Armenians and other Christians are protected minorities who reaped financial and political benefits from the state. Yet the facts do not support this claim entirely. Armenians were seldom elected to parliament and when they were present in government they held appointed rather than elected positions. As recently as 2012, Bashar al-Asad appointed a woman, Dr. Nazira Farah Sarkis, as Minister of the Environment. One could read this singular appointment in 2012 as an effort to garner the support of Armenians during a period of protracted fighting when Armenians took the formal stance of neutrality during the uprising.
The myth of minoritarian rule as beneficial to minorities has had devastating effects for everyday Syrians, who are targeted for reprisal as the primary collaborators with the Assad regime when, in reality, every community has been coopted to some degree within complex webs of collaboration that bear a distinct colonial design. Importantly, the minority myth detracts from the highest proportional beneficiaries of the regime, for, as Bassam Haddad’s research has shown, Sunni entrepreneurs are the backbone of the new bourgeoisie created under Bashar al-Asad’s rule over the last decade. Sunni elites have historically obtained higher and more influential offices in both Asad governments as Defense Minister (Mustafa Tlas), Prime Minister (Mustafa Miru), Foreign Minister (Faruq al-Shar’), and Vice-President of Foreign Affairs (‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam). It is important to bear in mind, for every accusation that minorities are regime collaborators, Sunni complicity is being erased. To ignore this fact is by omission upholding a sectarian discourse.
The invisibility of Armenians historically in Syrian politics is paradoxical considering the century-old durable political institutions—clubs, political parties, churches, and social committees—that have long survived in the shadows under both Asads. One would surmise that Armenians would have been predisposed to political participation, but the numbers show that they did not flourish under the authoritarian model. Instead, they voted with their feet, leaving Syria to avoid conscription and to look for better economic opportunities. In fact, historian Simon Payaslian has shown that the Armenian population dropped from 100,000 in the 1960s to 58,000 on the eve of the 2011 uprising underscoring how drastically the community has declined under authoritarianism.
While Hafiz al-Asad was hostile toward Turkey, Bashar al-Asad forged close ties that eventually stifled freedom of speech for Armenians on the subject of the Armenian Genocide. Those of us on the ground experienced intimidation in the form of monitoring our writings and emails, the banning and confiscation of books from bookstore shelves, and harassment by the secret police of authors who published on the Armenian Genocide. Under Hafiz al-Asad, Armenian processions for 24 April commemorations featured deafening displays of drumming and chants, Bashar al-Asad ordered more quiet displays of mourning with a quiet procession only within the church walls and Armenian cemetery in the years before the uprising. The policies of 2005-2011, stood in stark contrast to the encouragement Syria’s Armenians now have to criticize Turkey showing how Armenian speech is silenced or fostered at the whim of Syrian foreign policy.
Taking cues from the Lebanese civil war, Syria’s Armenians have maintained an official stance of “positive neutrality” since the revolt began in March 2011. This strategy has largely preserved Armenian areas of Aleppo while other areas in a state of rebellion were flattened by Syrian forces. The strategy saved Armenians in Lebanon, but studies have shown that it also marginalized them when it came time to forge the Ta’if peace agreement in 1989.
Kessab: Syria’s Rashomon Effect
The Opposition’s Story
After capturing Kessab, the conquering militias launched a slick public relations campaign uploading numerous videos on YouTube showing unscathed Armenian churches and gentle interactions with remaining elderly inhabitants. One photo circulated frequently by pro-opposition activists on Facebook featured an elderly Kessab Armenian woman carried by an opposition fighter captioned “Is this a terrorist?” In yet another video, we are given a tour of one of Kessab’s churches by a man with immaculate English as he imagines how each area of the church was used by the vacated residents. At one point, he grabs a Bible erroneously telling the viewers that it is written in Aramaic, but his larger point is that the Bible has not been destroyed by the fighters. The video shows “fixable” damage to the church’s plaster walls, attributed to the fighting between regime forces and rebels currently underway. The tour guide mentions at one point that the video was created specially “for Kim,” a reference to American reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
[A Widely-Circulated Image on Social Media Asks: Is This the Face of a Terrorist?]
The Armenian Diaspora’s Story
In an attempt to draw international attention to the plight of Kessab, the Armenian diaspora quickly latched onto the #SaveKessab viral Twitter and Facebook campaign to place international attention on Turkey just weeks before Armenian Genocide commemoration day on 24 April. After a century of denial by the Turkish government of the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during World War I, genocide recognition continues to be the top priority for the Armenian Diaspora composed of its victims. While many facts about Kessab were correct, amid the internet frenzy, activists circulated erroneous photos falsely claiming that a large number of Armenians had been murdered in the assault and shared faulty claims by Armenian celebrities Kim Kardashian and Cher that a second genocide was taking place in the town. Kardashian’s perspective on Kessab was amplified by the press when she retweeted these charges: “Please let`s not let history repeat itself!!!!!! Let`s get this trending!!!! #SaveKessab #ArmenianGenocide” despite the fact that Armenian deaths in Kessab remained undocumented at that point. Kardashian’s involvement in particular put her on the radar of opposition activists who slandered her as an Asad supporter although she never made any specific reference to the regime. A punned headline from the Daily Beast read “Kim Kardashian Butts Into Syria’s Civil War,” yet Cher retweeted something far more caustic when she wrote “Please check out what’s going on in Kessab, Syria. Innocent Christians and Armenians being killed by Turks #SaveKessab.” None of these high profile figures have retracted the misinformation that left opposition activists fuming at the double standard of calling what happened in Kessab a genocide while staying silent on Aleppo, Homs, and other parts of Syria decimated by war.
In the days after Kessab’s capture, an image of a mutilated woman on a bed with a cross shoved down her throat that circulated months ago among Syrian Christians on Facebook resurfaced during the #SaveKessab campaign. Snopes published the image with a clip from the original Canadian film by special effects filmmaker Remy Couture to verify that the woman featured was a gore film actress not a Kessab Armenian. Surely, this was not the first internet hoax, but with distrust of the Armenian position in Syria’s war, opposition activists quickly rushed to discredit what they called “Armenian lies” about Kessab and promote their own hashtag #SaveAleppo as a counterpoint to the #SaveKessab campaign. At this point there are several emotionally-charged videos that capture the civilian toll of ongoing barrel bombings in Syria’s northern city to deflect attention given to Kessab.
[Facebook Profile Image for the #SaveKessab Campaign]
The Armenian Catholicos’s Story
On 9 April, the hyper-reality of internet discourse on Kessab was corrected by the Armenian Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia his holiness Aram I in Antelias, Lebanon. His interview with Civilnet was a reissuing of an earlier position formulated by the Armenian leader two years ago. He stated, “What happened in Kesab (sic.) must not be isolated from the rest of the Syrian conflict.” With this statement, his holiness put a kibosh on efforts of the Armenian diaspora to situate the events in Kessab only within the realm of Turkish-Armenian relations. He added, “Syrian Christians and Muslims have accepted us as part of their society, they shared with us their homeland, and we became an inseparable part of Syrian society, and in the last decades after the Genocide, we actively participated in the building and rebuilding of Syrian society...We believe that the Syrian conflict must be solved through a political process; the conflict must be “Syrianized” and also the process aimed at the solution of this conflict must be Syrianized.” His Holiness Aram I reiterated the position of “positive neutrality” when he stated, “As a community, we should not associate ourselves with any given regime, political ideology, or person, they are provisional…we remain attached to the supreme interests of Syria.” The statement was quickly translated into Arabic in hope that opposition activists would not prejudge all Armenians for the sins of a few.
The Syrian Regime’s Story
Many Armenians have understood the unleashing of jihadists onto a surviving Armenian village a stone’s toss across the border as an attempt to finish what was started in 1915. Armenian fears were aggravated by a recent video showing militias crossing the Turkish border absent any Turkish border police. These fears have been capitalized on by Syrian state media positioning the regime as protector of Armenians. Pro-regime commentators have made overt connections between the depopulation of Kessab and the 1915 genocide, stating “this attack on Kassab [sic.] is a reflection of Erdogan’s anger towards Armenia’s stand against his terrorism in Syria, and a reminder of the 1915 massacres and the historical Turkish animosity towards the Armenians.” Such statements have exploited Armenian fears for regime support. Even a military-garbed Lebanese artist, Ali Barakat, known for his anthems to Hizbullah fighters quickly launched a music video to support the regime’s campaign called “Seal Your Victory in Kessab.” While the song is just a variation of an earlier tune he wrote for the campaign in Yabrud, it attempts to harness anger and fear over Kessab as the regime works to repel opposition forces from Latakia province.
Armenians cannot take the blame alone for Syria’s Rashomon effect, the Turkish press presented itself as the rescuers of Kessab’s Armenians offering them safe haven in Turkey. Hürriyet reported on two sisters, Sirpuhi and Satenik Titizyan, both in their eighties who were “rescued” claiming “they were now in “paradise.” Escorted by opposition fighters into Turkey, the elderly sisters stated, “Farmers and officials in the Turkish town are now taking care of their guests.” However, a very different account appeared when the women were interviewed in the Armenian Istanbul-based Armenian daily Agos. After arriving to Vakıflı, the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey in the Musa Dagh Mountains—a place known for its heroic resistance against deportation during the Armenian Genocide—journalist Lora Baytar reported that “ten bearded men entered and ransacked their home, saying that they were told not to be frightened and that the men were speaking Turkish, not Arabic. The two women reported that they were deported to the Turkish border, even though they told the men that they wanted to leave for the Syrian port city of Latakia.” As for their reaction to living in Turkey, rather than refer to it as “paradise” the women offered something less praising saying that “they needed to go “somewhere” because nobody was left there (in Kessab).” The women then compared relocation to Turkey to a morsel of bread. “If there is only one morsel of bread left in the entire world, we will eat that too.”
Instead of a story of rescue Agos told one of two women forcibly removed from Syria wherein Turkish-speaking militants played the role of perpetrator. In both accounts, the women related handing over their house keys to “bearded men” while Agos offered details about the ransacking of their home in Kessab. When the Agos interview was reprinted in yet another venue, Aydınlık, the interview was reframed as “Syrian Armenians Declare War Crimes of Erdoğan” sending a clear message, from its perspective, of who was to blame for the depopulating of Kessab.
While #SaveKessab intended to draw attention to the dramatic depopulation of Kesab and Turkey’s role in the event, as a social media campaign, it fell prey to “hoaxes” that typically spread viral on the internet—think Bonzai Kitten. Making Kardashian the fall girl for misinforming the public about Kessab merely highlighted the way in which celebrities rather than experts are looked to as purveyors of knowledge in an environment of anti-intellectualism. After all, the mainstream media quoted Twitter, Facebook pages of pro-opposition activists, lobbyists, and celebrities in search of the Kessab story which is hardly rigorous journalism.
While the internet has its own ability to produce gullible consumers, history shows there is a reason why such fears are easily stoked within the Armenian community. Images of sectarian murder have spread virally on state and social media paralyzing minority communities into submission to not only the Asad regime but to political interests more broadly. Turkey also got involved in the game—as did opposition activists—to dismiss sectarian concerns that were chalked up to mere hype. There was little effort to acknowledge what the loss of Kessab meant to the Armenian community and why its capture would produce such internet hysteria. The state sought to capitalize on the outrage over Kessab as it launches its campaign against opposition forces in Latakia province. Kessab is yet another manifestation of the Syria conflict’s Rashomon effect as each faction works to produce their own reality to gain support amid a hopeless political stalemate.
The Lambs of Kessab: A Requiem
Kessab is a place where Syria’s Armenians including myself summered for the celebration of the Virgin Mary during the heady days of August. I remember the lines of lambs outside a small chapel in a field in one of Kessab’s villages where people assembled for the sacrifices to the Virgin. Forty slaughtered lambs were converted into ten cauldrons of piping lamb and wheat porridge called “harisa” cooked over open wood fires and spooned out to the community. The long nights of celebration until daylight infused with nostalgia—a word that unites the Greek word for “homecoming” with that of “pain”—the longing for village life in Turkey lost to a crippling diaspora. Centered on the church, the heart of the summer ritual was the blessing of the grapes performed by the Armenian Archbishop of Aleppo. The grapes were symbolically harvested by the Archbishop while Kessab’s Armenians returned to their homes to cut their own vines after the ceremony.
During my last visit to Kessab during the celebration of St. Mary, we danced to the cool breeze late night in the fields near blood-stained front steps of the church where lambs were slaughtered earlier that day. Bits of a tail, tufts of wool, and pools of blood were left to soak into the soil before the Virgin’s chapel in a field near Kesab’s Eskuren village. The zurna, a double-reed wind instrument, hummed a familiar tune and the drum kept us on step as Armenians from all parts of Syria gathered hands, or more specifically pinkies, in a circle dance. Over the last decade, Kessab was noticeably overrun by Saudi tourists who summered there to escape the summer heat in the Gulf. We all noticed the two Saudi men, visibly without their families—a sign they thought the gathering inappropriate for loved ones—appear in the circle to dance with us. One man kept bullying the zurna player to play debka, an Arabic circle dance with a very different beat. Even though the instrument was familiar to the man, the rhythm, an Armenian tamzara, was completely foreign to him. The musicians refused to comply and kept playing Armenian tunes anyway.
I think about that episode today, the power dynamics laid bare in the exchange that seem more meaningful today: the failure on the part of the Armenian musician to accommodate the demands of outsiders suggesting he thought they should not be there, and the inability of the Saudi men to understand just what they were witnessing beside the church that night. For both parties, there was a failure to recognize the other. To the Armenians, the men were invaders and a threat to ritual. To the Saudi men, we were just a group of Armenians dancing in a field in Kessab. But to us, Kessab held intangible value as an artifact from a medieval Armenian kingdom that once ruled over this place and memory of village life before the great catastrophe that we reenacted every August.