Turkey facilitated an attack carried out by Islamist fighters against the Armenian town of Kassab inside Syria, eyewitnesses have told The Telegraph.
In an operation that was months in the planning, Turkish authorities gave rebel groups the mandate they needed to attack, allowing them access through a heavily militarized Turkish border post, whose location was strategically vital to the success of the assault.
“Turkey did us a big favour,” said a Syrian activist with the rebel group, whose name the Telegraph knows but has been asked not to reveal. “They allowed our guys to enter from their border post.
“We needed to hit the regime from different sides and this was the only way from near the coast, so it was a big help.”
Kassab is the ancestral home of the Armenian ethnic minority in Syria, which had remained relatively sheltered from the conflict in Syria. Residents were woken on the morning of the attack, on March 21, to screams and cries.
“We woke to the sounds of the shelling. There was no time even to get dressed,” remembered Bedros, 45, an Armenian resident who asked not to be identified by his real name. “I grabbed my wife and my children. We had no time to take our things. Some people fled in their night gowns.”
Two days later Kassab was in the hands of an alliance of Islamist groups, including the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra, aligned with al-Qaeda. Almost all of the villages approximately 2,000 inhabitants had fled.
The night of the attack a relative of Bedros had gone to one of the main border posts with Turkey, which is only lightly armed with Syrian troops, reportedly because of an agreement signed decades before the war.
“By the time he arrived the attack had begun. He saw the Islamist fighters standing with the Turkish army. They started launching their shells from the border”.
The Turkish foreign ministry has issued a statement stating that the claims that the government aided the opposition in the attack are “totally unfounded and untrue”.
However, the findings of investigation by Human Rights Watch (HRW), which included interviews with local eye-witnesses, directly contradict this claim.
“It is not feasible that these groups could have crossed into Syria from where they did without the knowledge of the Turks,” Lama Fakih, the Syria and Lebanon researcher at HRW told the Telegraph.
“One of the areas they used was an official border crossing that residents say has a Turkish military presence.”
The entry through the Kassab border crossing allowed the rebels to attack the Syrian military positions near village from several sides, making it key to the rebel assault.
Rebel groups had wanted to attack Kassab for a long time, said the female activist, but Turkey had previously denied them access.
“In the past the Turks refused to give us passage, because they said that in order to succeed in the attack we needed to be united,” she said, referring to the battles that took place at the end of last year between the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and other rebel groups in the area.
The attack on Kassab sparked dark memories of the Ottoman massacres for its inhabitants, and a hysterical flurry across social media from pro-government sources claiming horrific massacres in the town.
Residents themselves brought up memories of massacres in 1909, and the genocide in 1915, when Kassab villagers were slaughter in their thousands by the Ottomans.
“We always thought the Turks would attack us one day,” said Bedros, the fellow family members who he is sharing his new lodgings in Lebanon, nodding as he spoke. “And with the attack on Kassab it was clear that Turkey helped. The attackers came from Turkish territory.”
Kassab was however the Syrian regime’s ‘Achilles heel’ in the well defended coastal province of Latakia, where many Alawites, the same religious minority as President Assad, live.
Al-Nusra and the Islamic Front have pushed deeper into the terrain, taking control of Samra, giving them access to the coastline and engaging in fierce battles for ‘observatory 45’, the highest mountain point in the area, and a strategically vital military position.
“You can see why we needed to take Kassab,” said Dr Mahmoud, diplomacy envoy for the Islamic Front. “You can see what has happened. Now the regime is very very afraid.”