Michel Constantin is CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt
On Friday 21 March 2014, fighters from the Islamic Front and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front launched a surprise attack from the Turkish territories at the Syrian-Turkish borders in the north, seizing the Armenian Christian town of Kassab after taking the nearby border crossing.
The attack began at two in the morning. The inhabitants of Kassab, who are 95 percent Christian Armenians, were given only two hours to leave their houses or else risk getting killed.
Rebel fighters have also struck deeper into Lattakia province, attacking the town of Solas to the south and firing rockets overnight into Lattakia city, killing eight people. This has raised international concern, since the port of Lattakia is the main transportation hub shipping Syria’s chemical wepaons out of the country to be destroyed.
The attack also deepened the conflict between the two neighboring countries, especially since Syria accused Turkey of providing military cover for the rebel attack on Kassab, saying Turkish forces fired into Syrian territory. The Al Qaeda attack and takeover of the Kassab border crossing has caused up to 2,000 Armenian Syrians to flee the area. Mass looting and destruction of religious sites was reported by residents (similar to acts reportedly carried out in the city of Yabroud). Armenians are once again refugees like their ancestors who fled the Armenian genocide decades ago.
Some 680 Armenian families, the majority of the population of Kessab, were evacuated to safer areas in neighboring Basit and Lattakia; 300 Armenian families found shelter in their relatives’ and friends’ houses, while the remaining 380 have sought refuge in the Armenian Church’s hall. There is now concern about the fate of 10 to 15 families who couldn’t leave their village or chose to stay in their homes.
On Saturday 22 March, Syrian troops launched a counter-attack in an attempt to regain the border crossing point, according to eye-witnesses and state media. However, the following day the extremist groups once again entered the town of Kassab and took the remaining Armenian families hostage. They reportedly desecrated the town’s three Armenian churches, pillaged local homes and occupied the town and surrounding villages.
CNEWA immediately responded to the urgent need and provided the refugees with emergency items for 380 families in Lattakia, through its contact with the Armenian joint committee composed of an Armenian Catholic priest, an Armenian Apostolic priest, an Armenian Evangelical pastor and two social activists. CNEWA also supported 50 families who fled to Beirut through the Karagheuzian center in Bourj Hammoud.