Fall of Kassab will be costly for Turkey

Allegations have emerged that Turkey played a role in assisting opposition groups that took control of the Armenian-Syrian town of Kassab this month.

al-monitor The coastal area near the Armenian Christian town of Kassab is seen on March 28, 2014. Photo by REUTERS.

Topics covered

turkey, syrian conflict, syria, military aid, jabhat al-nusra, foreign policy

Mar 31, 2014

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has informed the United Nations that a camp for 2,000 persons is ready at Mardin for Syrian-Armenians who may wish to take refuge in Turkey.

I was delighted. Then a Christian friend called and asked: “April 24 is approaching and it is the Armenians again, just as 1915 will be observed.” I was angry because I couldn’t make the connection. Then came a statement by our Foreign Ministry: “All claims that Turkey supported opposition forces involved in the Kassab clashes by allowing them to use Turkish territory or in any other manner are entirely baseless.”

Mehmet Ali Edipoglu, a member of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee was in Hatay for a while to find out what was happening. He sent me an email: “We went to the villages of Gozlekciler and Candir as well as the Teknecik outpost. We were stopped by soldiers. We were upset by their warnings that our lives could be in danger. But in the areas they didn’t let us enter and even in the areas used by the soldiers, Syrian-plated cars were roaming about. According to information from villagers, thousands of fighters coming from Turkey crossed the border at at least five different points to launch the attack on Kassab. We ourselves observed dozens of Syrian- plated cars nonstop transporting terrorists and firing into the Syrian outpost from the military road between Gozlekciler village and our military base at Kayapinar.”

Among the allegations we heard was one that two tanks and about 30 semis had crossed the border, in addition to pickup trucks mounted with DShK heavy machine guns. According to a hard-to-believe report by a reporter for Al-Alam news channel, “The Turkish army shelled the Syrian military base near Kassab. … At Kassab, Jabhat al-Nusra hoisted its own flags on Turkish tanks.” The prevailing conviction is that the Turkish military shot down the Syrian jet to impede Syrian air operations against armed groups that captured Kassab.

Just as we were focusing on Kassab, the tape recording of the meeting between Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Feridun Sinirlioglu, Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Yasar Guler and chief of National Intelligence (MIT) Hakan Fidan surfaced. If the recording was authentic, they were talking about measures to be taken for the Tomb of Suleiman Shah threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Syria scenarios, weapons and ammunition problems of groups fighting in Syria, ammunition sent to the area earlier and results achieved. Their discussions showed how deep Turkey has sunk in Syria. They were scary, beyond logic. How then can I be surprised by the claims about Kassab?

At a time when opposition groups defeated at the Qalamoun battles were withdrawing to the north and foreign fighters were beginning to go back to their countries, their success in Kassab was a gain that reinvigorated Jabhat al-Nusra and its ally, the Islamic Front. At least, they were able to stand on the shores of the Mediterranean they dreamed of and posed for photos. For three years, they couldn’t cut through the Mediterranean front Latakia to Tartous, because it couldn’t be done without the logistical and military support of Turkey. The daily As-Safir, published in Beirut, wrote about the role of foreign intelligence services in the Kassab offensive: "Especially Turkish intelligence played a key role in preparations and planning of the attack, and supported its implementation.” Ibrahim Idlibi, the leader of the Lighting Brigade that took part in the offensive, proudly explained how they got anti-aircraft weapons and rockets from Turkey.

We don’t know how true these reports are. But when the critical actor is Turkey and the target is an Armenian town, then Kassab affairs assume different proportions. Although opposition militants said they protected the church in Kassab, Egyptian Abu Kathede in his Facebook message sent out a photograph of the church saying, "We took down the crosses. Our brothers will turn the church to a mosque.” Of course, the entire Armenian diaspora is talking about this.

The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) said Armenians had been once again forced to flee and asked Congress and the White House to put pressure on Turkey. Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said Turkish soldiers in 1909 and 1915 had tried to deport Armenians from Kassab and history was repeating itself.

Kassab is one rare location where Armenians live as a community. Like the Vakif village of Hatay, it is a symbol. They don’t find Turkey’s welcoming them to be convincing. To be honest, Turkey doesn’t want the Armenians to come and the Armenians don’t trust Turkey. We are at a critical juncture. The country that will pay the bill for a possible disaster in Kassab is known. As April 24 approaches, Turkey will be confronted with this issue at every possible opportunity.

These miscalculated, ill-judged moves in the end may bring Turkey to The Hague. With tape recordings or without, someone must answer the question posed by Armenian journalist Rober Koptas: "What changed? Until yesterday, it was Turkey blocking any attack against Kassab. But now, to say the least, it has turned a blind eye to Islamist groups.”

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