Congressman Frank Wolf Stands in Solidarity with the People of Kassab, Syria

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Last Friday, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) made a statement on the House floor “in solidarity with the people of Kassab, Syria.” Congressman Wolf’s comments were welcomed by the Armenian Assembly of America, as he joins a growing chorus of legislators to call attention to the terrorist attack on the predominantly Christian Armenian city.

On March 27, the Assembly’s executive director, Bryan Ardouny, and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), met with officials at the U.S. Department of State. The meeting came just days after the Assembly sent a pointed letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take steps to safeguard the Armenians of Kessab. The National Council of Churches also wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to safeguard the Christian Armenians of Kessab.

Last Wednesday, March 26, the Assembly publicly condemned the assault on Kessab and remains alarmed at credible reports that Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic extremists crossed into Syria via NATO ally Turkey, resulting in the displacement of over 650 families and the confiscation and looting of Armenian homes, businesses and religious sanctuaries.

Below is the full statement of Congressman Frank Wolf:

IN SOLIDARITY WITH THE PEOPLE OF KASSAB, SYRIA 

SPEECH OF
HON. FRANK R. WOLF
OF VIRGINIA
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
FRIDAY, APRIL 4, 2014

Mr. Speaker, I rise today in solidarity with the people of Kassab, Syria . Their town was overtaken by Islamist rebels late last month. The town’s inhabitants, who are largely Armenian Christians, have been forced by jihadist rebels to evacuate their homes and seek refuge in Lebanon and the nearby city of Latakia. I submit an article which ran in yesterday’s Washington Post which paints a deeply disturbing picture of the events unfolding in Kassab.

This is yet another case of Christians and other religious minorities being pulled into violent conflicts in the Middle East. Throughout the region, small and peaceful minority groups are often the first to suffer collateral damage, as we have seen in recent years not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

It is especially poignant to recognize the people of Kassab at this time of year, since April 24 is the Genocide Remembrance Day observed by Armenians around the world to commemorate the atrocities committed against their people nearly a hundred years ago.

I have advocated for a non-governmental bipartisan Syria Study Group to bring a fresh approach and possibly creative solutions forward to address the ongoing conflict in that country. It is inexcusable for the world to stand by while families are being driven from their homes, children are being killed and ancient communities’ very existence threatened.

[From the Washington Post, Apr. 2, 2014]
SYRIAN ARMENIANS, WHO HAD BEEN INSULATED FROM WAR, FORCED TO FLEE AFTER REBEL OFFENSIVE
(By Loveday Morris)

ANJAR, LEBANON.–Some fled in their nightclothes, others in their farming boots straight from the fields. Many thought they’d be able to return in a few hours but now fear they may never again.

Until the shells started raining down late last month, the tiny Syrian village of Kassab and surrounding villages had been largely sheltered from the three-year-old conflict that has devastated other parts of Syria . But now the area is the focus of a rebel offensive in the coastal province of Latakia, and an accompanying social-media storm of disinformation.

Kassab, a lush, mountainous idyll abutting the Turkish border, is an ancestral home of Syria’s minority ethnic Armenians, Christians who have lived on the land for a millennium. But the attack by jihadist rebels sparked a mass exodus from Kassab and nearby villages.

The picturesque Armenian hillside villages in the north of Latakia provide a foothold for a push into the rest of the province–a heartland of Syria’s minority Alawites, who are largely supportive of President Bashar al-Assad.

The area holds little other strategic value for the opposition, but the limited gains there have boosted rebel morale amid a string of defeats elsewhere, with the leader of the main opposition body, Ahmad al-Jarba, making a rare visit to Syria this week to tour the area and meet with fighters.

The Armenian diaspora, including some celebrities, has expressed outrage, demanding that the United States act to protect the Armenian community in Syria . The State Department has said it is “deeply troubled” by the developments.

Some Syrian government loyalists have launched a propaganda campaign accusing rebels of mass killings and desecrating churches in the area, sparking fierce rebuttals from opposition activists.

But the people of Kassab, like the 7 million others who have been displaced by the civil war, are focusing on trying to rebuild their lives after being torn from their land. At least 30 families have fled to neighboring Lebanon, seeking refuge in the Armenian village of Anjar and in the capital, Beirut, and the testimonies of more than a dozen shed some light on the events surrounding the offensive.

All but about 30 of the area’s roughly 2,500 residents fled within 48 hours of the attack, they said. The fate of those who remained, who were too old or unwilling to leave, is unknown, with communications to the villages cut. There was no major loss of life, they say, with just one known death, that of a local teacher who was hit in her car by a sniper as she tried to flee. Still, the mass exodus is particularly emotional, with Armenians from Kassab having been forced to leave their homes twice in the past century because of persecution by the Turks.

The Armenians first fled during the Adana massacre of 1909, when tens of thousands died at the hands of the Ottomans.

Then, in 1915, as many as 5,000 residents of Kassab died during the fracturing empire’s murderous campaign against the Armenians, which is widely recognized as a genocide.

“Now it’s 2014, and we are being displaced again,” said a 41-year-old farmer’s wife who arrived in Lebanon a week ago. Like others fleeing the loyalist area, she spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals if she and her family return.

“But thank God that this time there is no massacre,” she said. “We believe that, as Armenians, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Once again, the Armenians see the hand of their long-standing enemy behind their displacement, saying the rebel attack was launched from Turkish soil. Many of the farms and homes in what was once a popular tourist spot offer sweeping views of the Turkish border.

The offensive, they say, began about 5 a.m. on March 21, with villagers waking to the sound of heavy machine-gun fire, followed by shelling.

Two Syrian border posts were first struck, according to the accounts of several residents. With the posts manned only by lightly armed Syrian border police, residents said there was little in the way of defense against the push by jihadist rebel groups, which included the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham.

Not long after, the main border crossing to Turkey fell, residents said.

Villagers had prepared evacuation plans. In case of an attack, instructions were for women and children to congregate in Nabaeen, a village farthest from the Turkish border, with a back road to the city of Latakia.

By 7 a.m., one Nabaeen farmer said, about 50 people had gathered at his house. “People were crying and yelling that they had nothing with them. Some were in their slippers and pajamas,” he said. “It was a sad situation.”

Despite the chaos, many grabbed the deeds to their houses–an instinct, they say, for a people with a history of displacement. Some of the men stayed behind to see how the situation developed.

“We left all our valuables and had nothing more than the clothes we were wearing,” said one 40- year-old mother of three. As the shelling picked up, by 11 a.m. most of the families had left Nabaeen for the safety of Latakia, 35 miles south, as Syrian army reinforcements made their way north.

By March 23, the rebels had reached the center of Kassab. Villagers point to Turkey’s shooting down of a Syrian jet attempting to hit the invading fighters later that day as further evidence of Turkish support for rebels.

A Turkish diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that no rebels are “deliberately” allowed to use the Turkish border and that if there was shelling into Kassab from Turkey on March 21, it was because of new rules of engagement, which allow the country’s armed forces to retaliate when fired at to deter further attacks.

Turkey also said that the jet it shot down had strayed into its airspace.

Jihadist fighters who entered Kassab have gone to great lengths to stress that they are not desecrating churches or hurting civilians.

The mother of three said that after she arrived in Latakia with her children, she called home, and a man who identified himself as a member of Ja’hat al-Nusra answered.

“He said, ‘Come back, why did you leave your home? We have come here to protect you,’” she recalled, though she added that he later said she should convert to Islam before returning. “I pleaded with him, ‘Eat and drink whatever you like, but please don’t destroy the house.’”

But Kassab’s displaced residents are not convinced by the jihadists’ assurances, and some fear they will never be able to feel safe in the area again, even if the government succeeds in pushing out the rebels.

One farmer, who sold his car in Latakia to afford the journey to Lebanon, said his grandmother survived a notorious death march from the village to the city of Horns during the genocide but still returned to Kassab.

This time, he’s not sure his family will make it back.

“Our roots are there, everything is there,” his wife said, “but we can’t.”

The Washington Post article “Syrian Armenians, Who Had Been Insulated From War, Forced to Flee After Rebel Offensive”  by Loveday Morris is available online here.

U.S. State Department “Deeply Troubled” by Attacks Against Armenians in Kessab, Syria

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March 29, 2014

By Taniel Koushakjian

Yesterday, Marie Harf, Deputy Spokesperson at the U.S. Department of State, made the following statement during the daily press briefing:

We are deeply troubled by recent fighting and violence that is endangering the Armenian community in Kessab, Syria, and has forced many to flee.  There are far too many innocent civilians suffering as a result of the war.  All civilians, as well as their places of worship, must be protected.  As we have said throughout this conflict, we deplore continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria.  And as you may have seen from the readout of President Obama’s conversation with Pope Francis yesterday, they discussed among other things the plight of minorities, especially Christians, inside Syria today.

We have seen some statements by groups fighting in Kessab saying they will not target civilians and will respect minorities and holy places.  We expect those commitments to be upheld.  The United States will continue its steadfast support to those affected by violence in Syria and throughout the region, including Syrian Armenians.  We have long had concerns about the threat posed by violent extremists, and this latest threat to the Armenian community in Syria only underscores this further.

The statement comes after reports of Islamic extremists entering Syria from Turkey laying siege to the predominantly Christian Armenian city of Kessab, near the coastal city of Latakia in northwestern Syria. Over 650 Armenian families have fled the city, with Armenian homes, businesses and religious sanctuaries being overrun and looted, according to the reports.

On Thursday, the Armenian Assembly of America’s executive director, Bryan Ardouny, and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), met with officials at the U.S. Department of State. The meeting came just days after the Assembly sent a pointed letter to President Barack Obama urging him to take steps to safeguard the Armenians of Kessab. On Wednesday, the Assembly publicly condemned the assault on Kessab and remains alarmed at reports that Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic extremists crossed into Syria via NATO ally Turkey, resulting in the displacement of 2,000 people and the confiscation and looting of Armenian homes, businesses and religious sanctuaries.

Also, this week the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter and YouTube just days before the March 30th local elections that are largely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling AKP party. Erdogan vowed to “eradicate Twitter” at a recent campaign rally. Anti-government protests have plagued Turkey since the last summer’s Gezi Park protests that erupted after the Turkish government announced plans to demolish a park in the city center in order to construct a shopping mall. In recent months, allegations surrounding a government graft probe, and the subsequent dismissal of officials carrying out the probe by AKP party elite, has led to a wide spread revolt against the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Erdogan throughout the country of 74 Million people.

According to the most recent leaked audio tape on YouTube that led to the government censorship, senior Turkish government officials were planning a provocative event inside Syria in order to justify Turkish military intervention. It is currently unknown if the assault on Kessab is related to the recent downing of a Syrian fighter jet, which occurred hours before the terrorist siege on Kessab, Turkish government plans for Syria, and the upcoming Turkish elections.

Below is the full exchange of Ms. Harf yesterday with a reporter on the issue of the Syrian Armenians:

QUESTION: Yes. Regarding this statement that you made about the Syrian Armenians?

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I was just wondering if you have anything – update about the situation, or just – is this a past tense? Is something happened, or it’s – I think it’s the ongoing – I mean –

MS. HARF: It’s an ongoing issue, certainly, that we’re concerned about.

QUESTION: And then how you –

MS. HARF: But there – as I noted in my statement, though, there has been some recent fighting and an increase in violence, which is why we wanted to note it specifically today.

QUESTION: So are there – because there are some news reports from different sides regarding this issue for – either from the Armenians or from the Turks and from the Syrians in the same time. Are you following this story – I mean, this case? Are –

MS. HARF: Well, we are – I don’t know if you’re referring to a specific case – we’re certainly following the situation for Armenians inside Syria for all minorities, including Christians, and know that violent extremists such as ISIL have targeted them, among many people, but we’re particularly concerned about these minority communities and want to make sure that their rights are protected.

QUESTION: Beside being concerned – because let me be specific about – are you in touch with any of the governments, including the Turkey – Turkish Government or other UN organization to figure out exactly – because it’s – some of – there is a deportation of people taking place in the last week, which is, like, starting from last week till now. Are these – anything is going on in that regard?

MS. HARF: I can check and see who we’re talking to. Obviously, we talk to a host of countries in the region, Turkey and others, about a wide range of issues, but I can check on that specifically.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any – your – what you have is just, like, observation of what’s going on, or you have information?

MS. HARF: Well, I think we have both, right. We’ve seen reports, as I said – recent fighting, violence against the Syrian Armenian communities. We see the reports coming out of there. Obviously, we talk – we try to get as much information from the ground as possible, as we do in all places in Syria, but it’s hard to get. But clearly, there have been some very troubling trends lately.

QUESTION: Because according to some reports, that those people were Jabhat al-Nusrah people – I’m not sure if you mentioned them in the statement or not.

MS. HARF: Well, I was – what I’m talking about is extremist groups like ISIL attacking innocent civilians – in this case, the Syrian Armenian community, a minority community, as they have with other minority communities, Christian communities, and others inside Syria. So this is – what I’m talking about is those kinds of attacks. I know there are a lot of dynamics broadly here in the Syrian conflict, but I was speaking to one specific dynamic.

QUESTION: There is another thing which is written about this. When you mentioned the President and he raised the issue with the Pope or the Pope raised it with –

MS. HARF: They discussed it, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: – him, the issue, maybe I’m not – to be more accurate – is – this issue is raised with the Syrian opposition people? Because it’s like sometimes they don’t – according to what I heard last week from the Ambassador Ford that, definitely, they are usually avoiding to condemn publicly what’s going on by Islamic groups or a Jihadist group in Syria.

MS. HARF: Well, let’s be clear when we’re talking about the opposition, to be very clear that what – the violence I’m talking about is being perpetrated by groups like ISIL, so not the moderate opposition, not the folks we work with repeatedly and consistently on things inside Syria. I think that the opposition has been very clear in condemning extremism and saying they will fight extremism inside Syria and that that’s something they’re committed to, absolutely. They’ve said that for many, many months.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: On Syria?

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: According to reports in Turkey, the Foreign Minister Mr. Davutoglu planned a provocative act inside Syria so Turkey has the excuse to invade Syria. Do you want to comment on this?

MS. HARF: Are you referring to an alleged phone conversation?

QUESTION: Yes.

MS. HARF: As I said yesterday, I don’t have anything for you on alleged calls or conversations that are out there among Turkish officials.

QUESTION: Yeah, but Mr. Davutoglu –

MS. HARF: It’s not for me to comment.

QUESTION: But Mr. Davutoglu said that the tape is genuine.

MS. HARF: Again, not for me to comment on those allegations that are out there.

Yes, in the back.

The entire transcript of yesterdays U.S. Department of State daily press briefing is available here.