Syria: What Happened When Insurgents Captured Kessab? — Propaganda & Reality


What happened when the insurgency captured Kessab, a village near the Turkish border, at the start of their Latakia offensive in western Syria almost two weeks ago?

Writing for Ianyan magazine, Liana Aghajanian cuts through the propaganda to examine what we know — and don’t know.

Hyper-linked sources in original article:

The heartbreaking news came quickly – the ethnic Armenian town of Kessab in Syria, one of immense historic significance to Armenians had been taken over by hardline Islamists as residents were forced to flee. Rebels advanced to Bashar Al Assad’s hometown province, but there was more disturbing news – the Turkish air force shot down a regime war plane trying to bombard the rebel advancement by al Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s offshoot in Syria, reported the Wall Street Journal.

The civil war that had plagued the Middle Eastern country for three years had finally caught up to the border. Since it began, over 140,000 civilians have lost their lives, an estimated 9 million refugees have left the country now enveloped by rubble and death.

The mayors of various villages in the area told CivilNet that the town had been destroyed and was now “gone.”

But the tragedy of Kessab has also fallen to another tragedy of sorts – one of the digital world, where misinformation, unverified sources and fake photos have been used to create hysteria and have unfortunately gone viral, under the hashtag “SaveKessab.”

Eager to participate and help spread the word, the worldwide Armenian Diaspora has employed the hashtag, furiously tweeting, changing their FB profile photos and urging others to sign petitions to help stop “history repeating itself,” referencing the 1.5 million Armenians who perished in the Ottoman-era slaughter known as the Armenian Genocide. Kim Kardashian, Cher and even random celebrities like Blink 182′s Travis Barker got involved in the “SaveKessab” movement, too, which elevated the hashtag to their large worldwide audiences.

But in the process, the hashtag became a tool for spreading misinformation, as Armenia-based journalist Gegham Vardanyan summarized in his post on the topic, both in English and Armenian:

Those disseminating this type of false information are often ordinary users who simply want to use social media to show their patriotism or to help resolve the Kessab Armenians’ problem however way they can. The problem is that information from Kessab, as such, is very scarce. There is practically no first-hand information. And when there’s no information, it’s quite easy to replace it with misinformation.

Here is a primer on what is happening in Kessab, why it’s so important and how to separate fact from fiction.

An important note: Clarifying these facts does not undermine the story: The Syrian Civil War has reached an important, historical Armenian populated town. Kessab has been left in ruins. The entire population has had to flee as refugees in their own country. But along the way, issues have arisen that need to be addressed. Journalism is based in facts and verified information from first-hand sources. There is a reason why news stations independently verify reports, and fact-checkers are employed at magazines. Things need to check out, and check out again before being disseminated to the public. Not doing so is irresponsible, harmful and frankly, not journalism.

Clarification makes stories stronger. Here is an attempt to do just that:

What is Kessab?

Kessab is an Armenian populated town that sits near the border of Turkey, in the province of Latakia. There are several Armenian churches in the town, and according to various reports about 2,000 residents live in the town. In the 19th century, Kessab’s population numbered around 6,000 with more than 20 schools.

A report on meeting Millennium Development goals sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency mentions an innovative soap factory in Kessab, with products made using local laurel oil. The factory provided income for 20 families, “with a further 150 benefiting from the market for the berries they collect and process.”

Diasporan descendants often visit the town, many of whom had relatives still living there. One diasporan writes eloquently about going to Kessab to celebrate her grandmother’s 100th birthday.

Why is it so important?

Kessab was the last surviving town in the historical Armenian kingdom of Cilicia, which was formed during the Middle Ages by Armenian refugees who were fleeing the Seljuk invasion of Armenia. It extended from what is now southeastern modern day Turkey to Cyprus and Syria. According to, “The region of Antioch was emptied of its Armenian, Greek and Syriac inhabitants, due to intense persecution. In an attempt to avoid persecution, the Armenians of the flat lands of Antioch took refuge in more mountainous regions, such as Kessab and Mousa Dag.”

In “The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars,” Razmik Panossian highlights the importance of Kessab:

Even the Armenian born generation felt very strongly about Kessab- without ever seeing it. There was much pride in the (most uneventful) history of the village. It was a strange type of longing for a diasporan community – albeit a very old one – as a ‘homeland,’ while living in the real ‘fatherland.’ The important dimensions of this regional identity is how it is connected to nationalism.

What is happening in Kessab?

On Saturday, March 22, the Syrian war advanced to Kessab, and the town was thrown under siege. One of the village mayors of Kessab told CivilNet in a telephone conversation that “rockets from the Turkish border were launched at the village and that the leaders made a decision to evacuate the Armenian population to avoid human losses.”

The residents were evacuated to Latakia, with no time to take anything with them. They are being sheltered and fed as Kessab has been overrun by rebels and they cannot return. They also cite the town being destroyed. They report no casualties, although Armenian member of parliament Tevan Poghosyan, who visited the residents on a personal trip reports that there were initially 20 people who remained unaccounted for, seven of which returned back to to the refugee camp in Latakia.

The U.S. State Department announced that it was “deeply troubled” by the violence in Kessab, but as the Armenian National Committee of America points out, “stopped short of criticizing Turkey’s role.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that Armenian-Syrians are blaming Turkey for the advances in Kessab as “Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borers and weapons flow.”

Why are Armenians so upset about it?

In the last 100 years, this is the third time that the Armenian community has been forced to flee their homes in Kessab. In 1909, Turkish armed forces entered and pillaged the town. Almost 200 deaths were reported. In 1915, during the Ottoman-era slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians known as the Armenian Genocide, the entire population of Kessab was deported, thousands were killed and only a fraction survived to make their way back to the historical town again.

The events that have recently taken place have rattled the Armenian Diaspora, who has long fought for recognition of a genocide which Turkey denies. It has opened unhealed wounds and brought memories back of dark and defining times in Armenian history, which is made all the more shocking and emotional with reports of Turkish involvement. What is happening in Syria cannot be categorically referred to as “genocide,” but because of the emotional toll and trauma, what is happening now is easily being associated with the events of 1915.

The Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East has distributed a letter which describes the residents of Kessab as being “caught between two fighting forces,” though it also stresses that the land is being held by rebels “backed by Turkey and helped by its military forces.”

Since the start of the Syrian war, minorities like Armenians have been caught in the crossfires. Over 6,000 Syrian-Armenian have escaped along with the millions of ethnic Syrians that have fled out of the country, many of them forced into an unexpected repatriation back to Armenia.

What kind of misinformation has spread through social media about the Kessab Crisis?

Reports of Civilian Casualties

Armenian diaspora newspaper Asbarez was the first to report 80 deaths in the scramble out of Kessab, but that information has to date, not been confirmed. CivilNet cites no civilian deaths, although mentions there are missing persons. TIME quotes a rebel videographer who narrated a video tour of the town’s churches:

“Islam, he declared proudly, teaches respect for all religions, including Christianity. “The jihadist brothers do not harm anyone. This is our religion and this is our Islam.”

The BBC has the only first-hand published interview with a Syrian-Armenian farmer who is actually a resident of Kessab. He relayed in a radio interview that trucks carrying armed militants began coming from the Turkish side and attacking Syrian government police posts. “We heard lots of explosions near the villages close to the Turkish border.” He mentions no civilian deaths but does say about 50 elderly people stayed behind and when he tried to contact neighbors, the phones were answered by people who did not speak local Arabic. Epress has the transcript if you can’t listen to the audio.

Tevan Poghosyan, an Armenian Member of Parliament who visited Latakia last week on a personal trip reports no civilian casualties after speaking to the mayor and residents.

The Wall Street Journal reports that many Syrian-Armenians support President Bashar al Assad’s forces – an alliance which is a “safer bet to protect their interests” because Assad’s Alawite roots also make him a religious minority.

The Spread of False Photos

1. A Save Kessab Facebook page disseminated photos of Christian church in ruins on their page. “Hate Crimes, and the world is silent,” they wrote, insinuating that the desecration took place in Kessab. The photos actually turned out to be from St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church in Yabrud, Syria.

2. This article from a “former Muslim Brotherhood Member Now Peace Activist” references the “brutal massacre” in Kessab and was using a gruesome image of armed gunmen standing over the severed heads of several men in a grassy field. The image was actually from a 2012 video, showing armed Taliban militants standing over the heads of Pakistani ‘soldiers.’

3. A layered image was widely spread on Twitter and Instagram. The graphic photo of the woman with a crucifix down her throat is a still shot from the horror film “Inner Depravity,” the child behind held up is an image of Fatima Meghlaj, 2, decapitated when a bomb fell on her house in Idlib in Sept. 2012. The other image of a decapitated man is from Syria and completely unrelated to Kessab.

The Misuse of the Word “Genocide” and More

Here is the textbook definition of what genocide means: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.

The country of Syria is caught in a bloody, ongoing war that has unfortunately advanced to an Armenian stronghold. Tragically, Kessab has been caught in the middle of it, too. This is not a systematic attempt to wipe out Armenians. This is the byproduct of a war that has killed over 140,000 victims.

Furthermore, as Sako Arian on Hetq, Armenia’s investigative journalism outlet, points out, Turkey’s involvement in aiding rebels is not new:

The fact that Turkey is assisting the rebels in Syria isn’t a recent development. The Turkish Air Force has not only shot down Syrian planes but has installed Patriot type missile systems on its southern border.

These are the facts.

What is sad is that we Armenians have again fallen in the old trap of enemy hating creating by Turkey itself. Statements and posts of pain, sorrow and lament appear everywhere. In the midst of all these emotional outbursts, no one is thinking of real exit strategies.

So what do we take away from all of this? The facts are that something very terrible happened in Kessab – but something very terrible has been happening in Syria for years, and everyone – regardless of ethnic background or religion- is a victim. For an Armenian diaspora spread across the world partly due to the first what is widely acknowledged as the first modern genocide, this stirs deep, painful memories. This is especially compounded by Turkey’s continuous, almost 100 year denial of this pain and the historical significance Kessab holds for Armenians. However, pointing out facts and separating them from fiction is not just important, it is crucial. It is also very difficult during a time when getting information out of a particular country is near impossible. But highly emotionally charged hysteria prompted by incorrect news and photos is harmful. Before you post something, double check to make sure where it’s coming from. Before you share a photo, ask yourself what the origin of it might be. It’s pretty simple: Google Images allows you to backtrack the source of a photo by uploading it using the little camera icon. Use it. Think like a journalist, not a bystander, and question everything.

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  1. Scott, thank you for this.
    So what do we take away from all of this?

    The very ones are propagating the propaganda about the alleged repetition of the Armenian genocid who normaly don`t care about human rights, massaker and torture. To distort the facts is their biggest business. These are the same people who deny the gas attacks or the thousands of syrians tortured to death in assads prisons on the other side.

    It`s as same execrable as the committed atrocities because with the lie the victim dies a second time.

    • so if i use a twitter handle with a pro rebel avatar and post some fake pictures of assad attrocities, i guess the who anti assad campaign goes out the window as fake?

  2. Sad that the “left”, which once rightly berated rightists for stirring and stoking anti-Muslim scaremongering, in now doing the same in their desperate attempt to prevent a western intervention that was never going to happen, since western leaders are as frightened of perceived jihadism as their Russian/Syrian counterparts. They only care about civilian deaths, it appears, when an evil pro-Syrian/Turkish jihadist is involved. The Baath regime is fine and dandy because it’s secular, you see, and murdering thousands when one is secular and well turned out is no problem, only when a raggedy bearded jihadist does it. That is unless the jihadist in question is acting for a Russian/Iranian power, such as Hezbollah, in which case he’s a noble freedom fighter. Most of the opposition fighters, whether Islamist mujahedin or simply Syrian patriots, have shown much better conduct in this particular conflict than the Baath regime and its counterparts. (Jabhat-ul-Nusra and ISIL being the major exceptions)

    My condolences to the Armenians for what happened a century ago, it was terrible, unconscionable and deserves to be marked as a black page in history. But they could stop playing perennial victim anytime now, it’s as bad as the Likudnik party scaremongering about a second Holocaust

    • Stop playing the perennial victim? There is absolutely no comparison between the current situation and Israel’s scaremongering.

      Israel cries victim to cover up its own crimes against humanity, and to justify its continued occupation of Palestinian lands. Armenians, on the other hand, do no such thing, and the people living in Latakia had absolutely nothing to do with the civil war until Turkey spearheaded an attack against them.

      Imagine the outcry if Germany invaded Israel. That is exactly what is happening today: the same people who massacred over one million Armenians are attacking them again. Not only that, but the world is silent. Armenians have every right to scream and shout about this, because the Armenian genocide also started out as something menial until it snowballed into a horrendous crime against their people.

      This is not about who is the greater or lesser evil. This is about a small region in Syria that was until recently untouched, and entirely lacking in any strategic value. Despite that, Turkey spearheaded an attack on the region, using extremist foreign forces to run the locals out. And for what? A boost in morale? To make a point?

      The word terrorism has been thrown around all to often in this conflict, but the attack on Armenians is terrorism in its truest sense: no strategic value, just a feel-good factor for the offenders.

      The West’s silence, and implicit approval, is disgusting. Is it any wonder why minorities in the Middle East turn to Iran as their protector?

      • well at least “moderate” Jarba had a nice photo op, with various ex Guantanamo detaines. Its gonna be a funny talk with the americans after that.

        Its the same as Idriss before, he was also going to the jihadi frontline to get a few PR shots, then denied ever being there when massacres were uncovered, i expect the same from Jarba.

        Also expect that collective amnesia will again hit the pro rebel media as it did with Idriss

      • Your hypocrisy is running down the hompage, but you do notice?

        You said nothing when iranian hardliners had killed and tortured to death 120 peaceful protesters and you were silent as assad and iranian snipers had killed thousands of peaceful syrian protesters. You said nothing when the pictures of tortured syrians were published, and you were also quiet as a mouse as the harrowing reports of Assads gas attacks were published.

        But now you are now crying wolf talking about a alleged repetition of Armenian genocid which does not happen?

        Please touch at your own nose because you’re hiding that your beloved hardliner regime in Tehran had come to power only through mass murder and now you are supporing the gas mass murderer in Damascus.

        This is just abominable.

        • Why do you keep attacking my character instead of giving me some reasonable arguments? Not to mention the fact that you are making half of the stuff up.

      • This article (and others) have made it perfectly clear that there is no genocide going on, though there is a rather terrible conflict going on in which Turkey and Syria’s governments are both culpable.

        I think there are a lot of similarities to be drawn between Armenia and Israel. Both exploit a traumatic historical massacre to justify their bigoted foreign policy, both portray themselves as the outposts of their respective civilization (Christian Armenian and Zionist Israeli respectively) in a purportedly hostile Muslim neighbourhood, and both have a narrative that absolutely vilifies their respective neighbours (Turks and Arabs respectively). Both are perennially in land disputes with their neighbours, Israel with the Palestinians as well as Syria/Egypt etc, and Armenia with Turkey and Azerbaijan. The only difference is that Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust (despite Israeli supremacists’ glee in describing the coalition between the Jerusalem mufti and the Nazis, as if the Jerusalem mufti was anything more than a somewhat disproportionately influential municipal official). The Armenian atrocity WAS perpetrated by the ultra ethnocentric Young Turk government, but it one that has few parallels with the current Islamist-dominated regime in Turkey. It was ethnic chauvinism, not being Turkish in of itself, that was the cause of Turkey’s massacres against Armenians (and under Ataturk, the Kurds). There are not many ethnic-chauvinist Kemalists, thankfully, in modern Turkey.

        I don’t remember his name, but there was an Armenian writer who remarked on Armenia’s masochistic delight in playing victim and feeding off the understandable trauma of 1915 as an excuse to perennially hate their neighbours as evil barbarians committed to Armenian genocide. Despite inheriting an ancient and notable civilization, Armenia’s government and some of its media focus nearly exclusively on the crimes of 1915.

        Rebel atrocities deserve scrutiny as much as the government’s (which far, far, far outweigh them, by which logic we could say that there is a Syrian Arab/non-Alawite/Sunni “genocide” perpetrated by the regime), however invented reruns of the 1915 tragedy are not going to help

        • If you are looking after commonalities between the genocide of Jews and Armenians why do you not mention the Holocaust deniers and the Armenian genocid deniers? The function of these deniers of history is to prevent a processing of the assassination of millions of people. Only a recognition of the genocids could lead to a policy to prevente genocide in the future.

          The official Turkish state denies the Armenian genocide, as well as Khamenei and Iranian shiite hardliner deny the holocaust.
          The first example tells us the enmity between the Turkish and the Armenian state today and the second example describes that Islamist hardliners will never recognize a state of israel not matter which concessions israel will make.

          Both denials lead to the current state of hatred between the opponents of the Middle east today which only have the function to maintain the ongoing state of war. Who benefits from this situation?

          The ideolgie of Hamas, Hizbollah and Khamenei and those who support sectarian clashes (extrem sunni groups) . But ordinary people will suffer no matter whether they are living in Israel, Gaza, West Jordan, Yarmouk or at Damascus.

          It`s not “bigoted foreign policy”- it is the ideologie of enmity of the Middle east which plunges the region into chaos.

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