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Syrian Armenians Scramble for Safety as the Rebels Advance

As Syria's rebels expand their presence in Latakia, the Armenian minority has evacuated the border town of Kassab.
March 27, 2014, 7:45pm
Photo via Getty

The Syrian rebels’ advance to the Mediterranean — which they reached for the first time since the war started earlier this week — sent the local Armenian population packing from the border town of Kassab, and seeking refuge deeper into the Latakia region.

But as the rebels keep pushing to expand their presence in the area, Armenians fear that they will be displaced, once again.

Exile is a leitmotif for this minority, who scattered around the world fleeing genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government during and after World War I — a massacre which Turkey, incidentally, is yet to recognize.

"Kassab is historic Cilicia, part of historic Armenia. We don’t want to lose that last part of Cilicia that we have," Bedros Hajian, a leader of the Armenian community in California, told VICE News. "Of course after all these years of misery, Turkey still wants to depopulate the Armenians from that region. And they are being able to right now because Armenians are defenseless.”

A church in the Armenian Christian town Kassab after opposition fighters seized it on Monday. Photo via Reuters.

Thousands of refugees fleeing the Ottoman genocide resettled in Syria and, as is the case with other religious and ethnic minorities there, they have largely sided with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who they see as the only one able to guarantee their safety amidst growing sectarianism in the country.

Thousands of Syrian Armenians have left the country for Armenia and Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in March 2011. Until last week, however, the coastal region of Latakia had been relatively untouched by the war that is ravaging the rest of the country.

Assad himself is a member of another minority, the Alawites, and hails from Latakia, a region that is better known in peace time as a beach destination.

'The third deportation of Kassab Armenians today is a serious challenge to ethnic minority rights’ protection of the 21st century'

Armenians, who are primarily Christian, are more than a little wary of the radical Muslim rebels who have been expanding in the region and calling for an Islamic state in Syria. But they like the Turks even less.

That’s why recent clashes on the Turkish-Syrian border sent shocks down the spines of Syrian Armenians. The Turks shot down a regime plane that was trying to bomb the rebels as they advanced in the area. Turkey said the plane crossed into their airspace but Syria denied that and accused their neighbors of “aggression.”

Some Armenian LA gang members are fighting in Syria alongside Hezbollah. Watch here.

The Turkish government has regularly denied any support for the rebels, but it has just as regularly been accused of turning a blind eye to the flow of fighters and weapons across its border.

"These jihadists want to kill all the Christian Armenians and they’re being supported by Turkey," Hajian said, adding that Armenian Syrians have "all the evidence" that the Turks have been fighting alongside the rebels. "They said they want to burn Latakia and all Armenians. They want the genocide to reoccur."

As Turkish and Syrian authorities debated over who invaded who, some 670 Armenian families evacuated their homes in Kassab, which rebels took during the weekend. Only a handful of families stayed behind, either unable or unwilling to leave.

The video below, posted by rebels to YouTube, shows the deserted town after most of the population fled. Armenians have accused the rebels of looting Kassab's homes and churches.

Video posted by rebels to YouTube shows the deserted town of Kassab, after most of the local Armenian population fled.

About 2,000 people found refuge in Latakia city, where they were reportedly taken in by friends and family, and received help from local churches and the Red Crescent. Emails sent by VICE News seeking comment from the Red Crescent were not immediately returned.

“Many Armenian families are staying with relatives and friends, while others have sought refuge in the Armenian Church and the church’s hall,” Syrian Armenian community activist Nerses Sarkissian told the Armenian Weekly, a US-based publication.

Syrian opposition fighters reached the Mediterranean and headed to the beach. Watch their selfie videos here.

But Armenians saw the latest developments in Kassab as yet another reminder of their tormented past.

“All of us perfectly remember the history of Kassab, which was unfortunately, full of hellish deportations in the last century,” Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said at a press conference in The Hague, citing two earlier deportations of Armenians from the town, in 1909 and 1915. “The third deportation of Kassab Armenians today is a serious challenge to ethnic minority rights’ protection of the 21st century. I think everyone should realize these sobering parallels.”

A parliamentary delegation from Armenia met with Assad on Thursday to express their “solidarity.”

Assad meets with a parliamentary delegation from Armenia as rebels take Kassab, home of local Armenian community. — DavidKenner (@DavidKenner)March 27, 2014

Meanwhile, the Armenian National Committee of America issued an open letter on Thursday calling on the Obama administration to “stop Turkey's support for the destruction of Kassab.”

“The United States has the power to stop Turkey’s provocations and assistance to these radical groups and send a clear message that targeted military strikes against innocent civilians is unacceptable,” it said.

Members of the large Armenian diaspora in California (including motorcycle clubs) also called for a protest outside the Turkish consulate in Los Angeles on Friday.

Hajian said this demonstration will be "against the terrorist Turkish state that has occupied Armenian land and carried out genocidal attacks on the villages that are left. To tell them to leave Armenians alone."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi