By ALBERT AJI and DIAA HADID Associated Press
When hundreds of residents of the postcard-pretty coastal Syrian village of Kassab fled this week, it bore historic weight: it was the third time since 1900 that ethnic Armenians there felt compelled to run for their lives.
They left once at the hands of vengeful Turkish neighbors, and later because of Ottoman forces. This time it was Syrian rebels storming into town. It was a heavy blow for the minority community that sees the town as key to preserving the Armenians’ identity in Syria.
Kassab “is a symbol of Armenian history, language and continuity. It’s very symbolic,” said Ohannes Geukjian, a political science professor who writes on contemporary Armenian history and politics. “And so the fall of Kassab, I consider it the defeat of Armenian identity in that area.”
Rebels seized control of Kassab on Sunday after launching an attack two days earlier in the coastal Syrian province of Latakia. The fighters were from an array of conservative and Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.
The province has an ancient Armenian presence, but is better known as a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad. It is his ancestral home and that of followers of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, that he belongs to.
The clashes led most of Kassab’s estimated 2,000 residents to flee some 35 miles (57 kilometers) to Latakia city, emptying out a village that boasted a Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant church.
“We had to flee only with our clothes. We couldn’t take anything, not even the most precious thing — a handful of soil from Kassab. We couldn’t take our memories,” said a woman to Syrian state television. She identified herself as Kassab resident, but didn’t give her name.
Kassab is surrounded by the villas of middle-class Syrians who built their homes amid green wooded hills overlooking the sea. The area got a boost from a popular 2008 Syrian telenovela, “Daya, Daya,” which was filmed in nearby village of Samra. Tourists flock to the area in the summer.
Kassab residents, speaking to Syrian television, said mortar shells and gunfire came from the Turkish border toward their village. A Syrian field commander on a government-organized trip told journalists in the nearby town of Badrousieh that gunmen began their attack “with clear support from the Turks.”
Turkish officials refuted the claims.
“The allegations by some circles that Turkey is providing support to the opposition forces by letting them use its territory or through some other ways during the conflict … are totally unfounded,” the Turkish government said in a media statement on Wednesday.
The Turkish government was prepared to admit Syrian Armenian refugees and “protection could be provided to them,” the statement said.
Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian said Kassab was attacked by Turkish militants in 1909, forcing local Armenians to flee for their lives. In 1915, as the 600-year-old Ottoman empire violently unraveled, the Armenian population was deported by the Turks, and thousands died as they marched across the desert.
A website created by Kassab descendants, “Kessabtsiner,” confirmed those events.
“This is the third expulsion of Armenians from Kassab and it represents a major challenge to modern mechanisms for the protection of ethnic minorities,” Sarkisian said in a statement this week.