BEIRUT — A rebel assault on the northern Syrian town of Kasab near the Turkish border has sparked a furor among Armenians worldwide and revived dark memories of the Ottoman-era genocide.
It's unclear how many civilian casualties occurred in the previously tranquil home to about 2,500 Armenian Christians. But the incident, which has also heightened tension between Turkey and Syria, provides a sharp new focus for the propaganda wars between the government of Syrian President
It has also triggered a raging battle on social media, with pro-opposition activists on the defensive against what they call an Internet disinformation campaign by supporters of the Assad government. Syrian officials, meanwhile, have accused Turkey of backing an
Thousands of Syrian rebels, many of them with Islamist radical groups, including some linked to Al Qaeda, surged across the Turkish-Syrian border March 21 and seized a swath of mountainous territory in northwestern Syria's Latakia province, including Kasab.
Many residents of the town have since fled, like their ancestors who survived the genocide of the early 20th century, joining the legions of Syrians displaced by the war. The
The large-scale rebel strike appeared to catch the thinly stretched Syrian military off guard, though the government says its forces have won back terrain in a punishing counterattack close to the porous border. Fierce fighting continued Thursday, both sides said. An opposition monitoring group has reported more than 300 fighters killed, including rebels and loyalists, while pro-government activists have said that more than 1,000 rebels have been killed in almost two weeks of clashes.
On March 28, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles to assail Turkey — which has called for Assad's ouster and has long harbored rebel fighters — for helping facilitate the Kasab attack. Demonstrators waved U.S., Syrian and Armenian flags and hoisted signs bearing messages such as "Freedom from Turkish aggression."
Among those plunging into the Internet fray is
"If you don't know what's going on in Kessab please google it, its heart breaking!" Kardashian tweeted, using an alternate spelling of the town's name. "Let's get this trending!!!!"
In the case of Kasab, the painful history of Armenians in Turkey weighs heavily in the debate.
Armenian groups, scholars and many governments say Ottoman forces committed genocide against ethnic Armenians during and after
Syria's Christian minority is generally seen as backing the Syrian government, though many Christians also seek a more democratic leadership.
Elsewhere in Syria, Islamist radicals have defaced churches and kidnapped Christian clerics and nuns. A pair of bishops and an Italian Jesuit priest, Paolo Dall'Oglio, have been among those abducted, reportedly by Islamist rebels.
In Kasab, opposition forces have rejected Internet accounts of Christians being killed and churches being vandalized.
"Our battle is not a sectarian one," Ahmad Jarba, head of the U.S.-backed Syrian National Coalition exiled opposition group, said during a visit this week to a rebel-controlled area in Latakia province, according to a video posted on YouTube. "Our battle is with this ruling mafia.... It is not with the Alawites, nor with the Armenians, or the Christians."
Jarba's visit highlighted the symbolic value the opposition places on maintaining pressure on Assad's native province, which is also the homeland of his ultra-loyalist Alawite minority sect and of many commanders in the Syrian military and security apparatus. Still, experts say the likelihood of rebels pushing deep into heavily defended Latakia appears slim.
With government forces advancing on several fronts and many rebels turning in their weapons, the opposition has touted the Latakia offensive as evidence that it can still strike at Assad's ancestral home and along the Mediterranean coast.
"Whoever thinks there is pressure on us to stop this battle is delusional and wrong," Jarba told the rebels gathered for his visit.
His appearance also dramatized how even "moderate" U.S.-backed opposition groups like the
In August, a rebel sweep into a different area of Latakia resulted in the executions of scores of pro-government civilians and the kidnapping of hundreds more, mostly women and children, in predominantly Alawite villages, according to an investigation by
U.S. officials who back the Syrian opposition have voiced concern about the makeup of the forces that overran Kasab. U.S. Sen.