With the U.S. Capitol looming large in the background, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) led a Congressional press conference condemning the forced depopulation of the historically Armenian city of Kessab, Syria by Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists aided and abetted by neighboring Turkey, reported the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
Congressman Schiff was joined by Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Representatives Judy Chu (D-CA), Jim Costa (D-CA), Anna Eshoo (D-CA), and Brad Sherman (D-CA), as well as ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian in calling for increased U.S. leadership in assisting those displaced and investigating Turkey’s role in facilitating the attack.
ANCA Executive Director Aram Hamparian thanked each of the legislators taking part in the news conference, stressing that: “These attacks came from Turkey, with the clear support of the Turkish military. We should have a zero-tolerance policy for any NATO ally working with Al-Qaeda-linked groups to attack religious minorities. It’s for this reason, that we support calls upon the House and Senate intelligence committees to investigate Turkey’s role in the attack on Kessab. We deserve to know if our allies – and possibly our arms – are being turned against Christians in the Middle East,” concluded Hamparian.
“Since the war began, I have continually raised my concern over the dangers facing Syrians of Armenian descent and other Christians,” explained Rep. Schiff. “I have spoken to the President about this directly, questioned our ambassador to the United Nations about this just last week, and urged the Appropriations Committee, on which I sit, to devote time, attention and resources to aiding Syria’s Christian community. In fact, this afternoon, I will be asking USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah about our efforts to reach the Christian communities still inside Syria.” Rep. Schiff went on to point out that “Many of the residents of Kessab are descendants of victims of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. There is particular poignancy to their being targeted in this manner, almost a century after the start of the genocide.”
Rep. Sherman was direct in his call for an investigation into Turkey’s role in the Kessab attacks. “I want to join with several of my colleagues in urging that the intelligence community and the State Department provide a classified briefing on what was Turkey’s role in assisting and providing shelter to Al-Qaeda linked terrorists who carried out this ethnic cleansing of the town of Kessab,” explained Rep. Sherman. “I also urge the State Department to go further than acknowledging a terrible situation and provide us with a clear, and I think it would have to be classified, description of how an Al-Qaeda linked group was able to enter Syria from Turkey, on a mission of ethnic cleansing, ” concluded Rep. Sherman.
“Over the past three years, the Syrian Christians have paid a high price in this civil war, and up until the last month, Kessab has been a safe haven for those seeking refuge,” noted Rep. Costa. “What’s even more troubling for me is the reports that the Turkish government has aided these terrorists by supplying them military support and supplies. And that’s why, I think it is incumbent upon those of us in Congress who care deeply about this issue, to provide the leadership, to speak out, and to ensure that our government provides the accountability necessary to get to the bottom of this.”
“I can’t help but think, ‘here we are again,” began Rep. Anna Eshoo. “Wherever there has been war across the Middle East, Christians have been targeted and have suffered enormously. And the recent rebel assault on the northern Syrian town of Kessab is yet another sad, sad chapter in what is taking place in the Middle East. And make no mistake, these communities, in this case the Armenians, are targeted because they are Christians and now they are residents on the chessboard of international politics. And as we anticipate almost the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide – it’s like ripping a scab off a wound. It runs very deep, it runs very broad,” concluded Congresswoman Eshoo.
“We see time and time again that it is the Christian minority, including the Armenian community, that is especially vulnerable,” noted Rep. Chu. “This was made tragically clear last month when Islamic militants from Turkey crossed the Syrian Turkish border and attacked the community in Kessab. It’s a city of refuge for Armenians fleeing the Armenian Genocide. It’s where Armenian Genocide survivors started a new life. This city served as a refuge for Syrian Armenians escaping the violence in Aleppo. Seeing this violence now is an unspeakable tragedy. […] Let’s return Kessab to a place of hope that it has been for the Armenian community for so many years,” concluded Rep. Chu.
“I think the U.S. has to be more involved in providing more help for not only Armenians but other Christians in Syria who are basically being harassed and persecuted and forced from their homes, because of the civil war,” explained Congressman Pallone. “One of the things that we did was that we wrote to the Appropriators and asked that sufficient help be given to the Armenians and other Christians for humanitarian purposes, because we know that while this incident, Kessab, is probably the most horrendous right now, there are other Armenians and Christians throughout Syria that had to flee their homes, that had been killed, and subject to loss of property and all sorts of other problems because of the civil war.”
Located in the northwestern corner of Syria, near the border with Turkey, Kessab had, until very recently, evaded major battles in the Syrian conflict. The local Armenian population had increased in recent years with the city serving as safe-haven for those fleeing from the war-torn cities of Yacubiye, Rakka and Aleppo. On the morning of March 21st, extremist foreign fighters launched a vicious attack, from Turkey, on Kessab civilians, forcing over 2,000 to flee to neighboring Latakia and Bassit. An international social media campaign – #SaveKessab – has garnered broad media attention to the tragedy with over 100,000 tweeting about the crisis and tens of thousands calling for immediate U.S. and U.N. action.
In a statement issued this week, the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman noted that “the Secretary-General demands that warring parties and their supporters ensure that civilians are protected, regardless of their religion, community or ethnic affiliation. Both the Syrian government and armed groups have the legal obligation and moral responsibility to do so.” The statement went on to spotlight the Kessab crisis, noting “gross human rights violations undeniably continue and residents of entire villages such as Kassab have been forced to flee.”
In a recent U.S. State Department statement, Spokeswoman Marie Harf noted that they are “deeply troubled by recent fighting and violence that is endangering the Armenian community in Kessab, Syria and has forced many to flee. There are far too many innocent civilians suffering as a result of the war. All civilians, as well as their places of worship, must be protected.” The statement went on to note that “We have long had concerns about the threat posed by violent extremists and this latest threat to the Armenian community in Syria only underscores this further.”
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have both condemned the Kessab attacks. “I share your concerns about the safety of all civilians in Kessab, and I am alarmed by reports that Turkey may have facilitated the attacks,” explained Chairman Feinstein, in a letter to her constituents. “Please know that I condemn violent attacks on civilians in the strongest possible terms, and I support U.S. efforts to provide relief to civilians affected by the crisis in Syria.”
Chairman Menendez noted, “Like you, I am gravely concerned by reports of a March 21, 2014 attack on the predominantly Syrian Armenian town of Kessab, near the Turkish border, by Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists based in Turkey. Attacks of this nature are another example of a dangerous new chapter in the violence now engulfing Syria; one where Syrian minorities are actively targeted by Islamic extremists because of their religion and ethnicity. I condemn all such attacks, including those on Armenian Christians.”
Other Representatives who have expressed concern about the attacks over the past several weeks include Representatives David Cicilline (D-RI), James McGovern (D-MA), Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA). In a joint letter to President Obama, Congressional Armenian Caucus Co-Chairs Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Michael Grimm (R-NY) and Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.227) lead authors David Valadao (R-CA) and Adam Schiff, commented on the Kessab attacks, noting “When coupled with a mass exodus of the Armenian community, these events are far too reminiscent of the early days of the Armenian Genocide, which took place nearly 100 years ago in Ottoman Turkey under the cover of World War I.” The letter goes on to note, “With the Christian Armenian community being uprooted from its homeland, yet again, we strongly urge you to take all necessary measures without delay to safeguard the Christian Armenian community of Kessab. We also believe that now is the time to redouble America’s efforts to ensure that all minority communities at risk in the Middle East are afforded greater protection.”