Armenia on Tuesday pointedly declined to react to Russian officials’ apparently unfounded claims that Syrian rebels shot and killed ethnic Armenians when they captured Kessab, a small town close to Syria’s border with Turkey.
The Kessab mayor insisted, meanwhile, that none of the local Armenians was executed after the Islamist rebels, among them members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, stormed into the town on March 23.
“The shooting by militants of Armenian residents of the village in Syria must be investigated. The UN Security Council must immediately discuss the situation,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov tweeted late on Monday.
A spokesman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry said that official Yerevan will not comment on Gatilov’s demand, which was echoed by the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement issued on Tuesday.
The statement pointed to a YouTube video that purportedly shows Syrian rebels executing people in Kessab. “Even assuming that it, as some sources claim, demonstrates the ruthless execution of not Armenians of Kessab but Syrian army soldiers, that crime becomes no less monstrous,” it declared.
In what appeared to be part of a concerted Russian government effort, Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman leader of Russia’s Muslim republic of Chechnya and a staunch ally of President Vladimir Putin, claimed that around 100 Kessab Armenians were killed in the rebel attack. “These terrorists were brought up and armed by the West and trained by NATO,” Kadyrov wrote on his Instagram page earlier on Monday. A picture attached to the post showed him praying in a mosque.
Unconfirmed reports about atrocities committed in Kessab appeared in some Armenian Diaspora publications in the United States last week. One report alleged that as many as 80 Armenians died in the rebel assault. Although it proved to be false, the allegation was picked up and circulated through online social networks by Armenians around the world. Many of them accused Turkey of being behind the “massacre,” drawing parallels with the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire.
Several members of Armenia’s parliament rushed to Syria late last week to verify the allegations on the ground. They met with Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad and visited Latakia, a coastal city where around 2,000 Kessab Armenians, the town’s virtually entire population, took refuge. The lawmakers said on their return to Yerevan that none of the local Armenians is known to have been killed by the Islamist rebels.
Kessab’s Mayor Vasken Chaparian confirmed that in a phone interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on Tuesday. “These are lies. We have suffered no casualties,” he said from Latakia, referring to alarmist reports spread through the Internet.
Chaparian also dismissed rumors that the rebels took hostage some of around 40 elderly Armenians who were unable to flee Kessab together with the other residents. He said they are being evacuated to Latakia “little by little.”
In Yerevan, meanwhile, observers saw ulterior motives behind Russia’s stated concerns about the fate of Syria’s Armenian community that has shrunk dramatically since the outbreak of the civil war in the Arab state. Samvel Martirosian, a prominent blogger and commentator specializing in national security issues, said Moscow is deliberately lending credence to untrue information about Kessab Armenians to further its geopolitical agenda in the Syrian conflict.
Martirosian also suggested that Turkey could use those false reports to undermine and discredit the Armenian case for greater international recognition of the 1915 genocide. “We could have very serious problems later on,” he said.
“The Russian actions are sending the following the signal to Armenia: ‘You must meddle in this conflict and protect Russia’s interests,’” said Sago Arian, a Syrian-born Armenian intellectual.
Russia is a key international backer of the Syrian regime ostracized by the West and much of the Arab world. It has repeatedly condemned Western powers and their Arab allies for supporting rebel forces fighting Assad’s troops.