BEIRUT—Rebels, with help from Turkish tanks and anti-aircraft fire, are prevailing in a sustained attack in northwestern Syria that began a week ago, Syrians in the area are reporting.
Armed jihadists, mostly foreigners fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, began “leaking” over the border and invaded villages in Latakia province, according to eyewitnesses and survivors of the attacks. The coastal province is home to Assad, and many villages in the area are inhabited by Alawites, the Muslim sect of the Assad family. Many villages in the area also are home to Armenian Christians.
The assault began March 21 when fighters attacked Kasab, a predominantly Armenian border town. That fighting left at least 80 dead and forced about 3,000 Christians to flee, seeking refuge in nearby hills or the coastal city of Latakia. “In taking over control, churches were desecrated, houses pillaged, and government buildings destroyed,” one pastor told World Watch Monitor.
In Latakia, about 600 families are taking shelter in Armenian churches. Local charity groups are providing food, mattresses, blankets, and clothing—“since almost all of them have left without their personal daily wear,” according to a Syrian Armenian doctor (who is not named for security reasons).
During the attacks, Turkish tanks were stationed at the border in support of opposition fighters, according to eyewitnesses. The Assad regime responded to the assault with troops and airstrikes. On March 23, Turkish anti-aircraft fire hit a Syrian fighter jet, a MiG-21, sent to protect military installations in the area and to thwart rebel convoys. The jet went down but the pilot ejected.
“Turkey is hosting jihadis,” said a Syrian humanitarian worker who lives in Damascus and received reports from the area. A Muslim who supports the regime in the civil war, he asked not to be identified for security reasons. “We feel this fight is not something related to Syria, not something for our good,” he said.
The Syrian physician told me that displaced Armenians from Kasab reported the jihadi fighters included Chechens, Tunisians, Turks, and Arabs.
Turkey is a member of NATO and the United States has an air base that’s home to the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik, just 130 miles away from the area of border fighting. Armed military conflict between Turkey and Syria could severely escalate the Syrian war, forcing a NATO intervention.
Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United States, and others have staked positions against the Assad government and are supporting varied rebel factions in the war. The attacks on Armenians mark the first targeted assault on the long-established group of ethnic Christians, many of whom took refuge in Syria during the Armenian genocide in Turkey a century ago. With Turkey no safe haven, many forced from Latakia Province are hoping to seek refuge in Armenia itself. But they will need to cross into Turkey in order to get there.