Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kasab & the rebel offensive in northern Latakia province

Over the last weekend Islamist forces led by Jabhat an-Nusra and the Islamic Front attacked and finally conquered the town of Kasab, which lays in the north of Syria's Latakia province on the Turkish border. It is a strategically important town, not only because it had been the only border crossing to Turkey left controlled by the regime - but also because it's capture enables a further penetration of the Alawite heartland from the North.

Tempered hope in renewed Latakia offensive
by Maya Gebeily, Now.

Assassination of Hilal al-Assad

During the capture of the town Hilal al-Assad, a second cousin of Bashar al-Assad, was killed. Hilal al-Assad himself was the leader of the National Defence Forces in Latakia province. He was the grandchild of Ahmad al-Assad, the older half-brother of Hafiz al-Assad. This branch of the family has a long established reputation for it's criminal activities and Hilal al-Assad was like the prototyp of a shabiha-leader (don't forget to read "The Originial Shabiha" at Syria Comment). His legacy will be carried on by his son Sulaiman, who is also widely known for his thuggish lifestyle. Hilal's brother Haʾl, so far head of the military police in the army's 4th division commanded by Mahar al-Assad, is his successor as head of the National Defence Forces in Latakia, a semi-autonomous militia composed of local civilians.

Rape and ransoms: Hilal al-Assad’s ‘thug’ legacy
by Mohanad Hage Ali, Al Arabiya News

NDF-video eulogizing the fallen Hilal al-Assad

Despite rumours circulating on social media, pro-regime militia leader Mihrac Ural aka ʿAli Kayyali was not killed along with Hilal al-Assad. He is alive and his Muqawama as-Suriya is involved in the fighting. For a recent Interview with him by Lebanese pro-regime daily al-Akhbar about the fall of Kasab see here.

Mihrac Ural in Kasab countryside

The Armenian aspect

Kasab is not only a Syrian border town, it is a mainly Christian-Armenian town. Many of the inhabitants are descendants of survivors of the Armenian genocide, a fact which adds a flavour of Turkish-Armenian tensions to the issue of Kasab. Turkey is accused  of letting flow Islamist fighters into Kasab via the border crossing.

Latakia Offensive Stirs Dark Memories for Armenian-Syrians 
by Maria Abi Habib, The Wall Street Journal
....But for Armenian-Syrians from the town of Kassab in Latakia, which rebels overran this weekend, the Turkish involvement reminded them of a dark chapter in their history: the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman empire in 1915. The Turks bristle at the term genocide, although 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Ottoman forces.
For many of Kassab’s Armenian-Syrians, the Nusra Front occupies one side of the same coin the Turks do as well – an existential threat in a war where initial concepts like freedom and democracy have been sidelined by minorities’ concerns, steeped in thousand-year-old memories of past injustices perpetrated across the region. Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t, is the common Christian refrain.
Armenian-Syrians expressed outrage Sunday over radical Islamist rebels taking over Kassab, which they said would threaten the town’s Christian inhabitants, many supporters of President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Kassab residents cheered on Damascus in the fight against rebels this weekend, believing the alliance with Mr. Assad — an Alawite, another religious minority — a safer bet to protect their interests.
Armenian-Syrians blamed Turkey for rebel advances in Kassab — as Ankara has long turned a blind eye to rebels crossing their borders and weapons flows — and equated a win by Nusra with the Armenian genocide.
When Ankara shot down the Syrian war plane, it was too much for Kassab’s residents. They claimed an old foe – Turkey – was conspiring against them by allying with a new enemy – Sunni Muslim extremist groups like Nusra.
“The Turks are [working against] us again. This is unacceptable considering history. Genocide repeat [in] Kassab,” said one Twitter user from the town, in sentiments shared by many other Syrian-Armenians on the social networking site. “What a bad day this has been. God bless everyone who is defending the beautiful village of Kassab.”
Turkey has denied it supports extremist rebels and said it shot down the Syrian war plane to protect its territory.

While the extend of Turkish aid for the rebel takeover of Kasab demands further research, it it clear that it has not happened primarily because of its Armenian population. The Armenians therefore tend to see that different and of course pro-regime media is quick to draw the Armenian card. In the meanwhile, the ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America), the most powerful Armenian lobby group in the US, got involved and urged President Obama to stop the attacks on the town. According to The Armenian Weekly the overwhelming majority of the Armenians has decided to flee the town - and only 10 to 15 out of nearly 700 families have stayed.

Islamist fighters in an Armenian church, Kasab

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