It wasn’t long after several Syrian rebel battalions overran the Armenian-Christian town of Kessab, on the border between Syria and Turkey, that apocalyptic reports of looting, abduction and mass murder started appearing in news accounts around the world. “Reports Cite 80 Dead in Kessab; Churches Desecrated,” read one headline in the diasporic Los Angeles-based Asbarez newspaper. Christian residents who had fled to nearby towns told reporters they later called home only to have rebels pick up to tauntingly tell them they had nice furniture and tasty food.
It has become a familiar trope in the Syrian conflict. Islamist rebels launch a string of military offensives against a Christian-majority town to root out government forces there, the latter respond by indiscriminately bombarding the town, residents run for their lives, and the government is quick to portray it as another incident of ethnic cleansing carried out by foreign-sponsored fundamentalists. Lately, however, rebels have been making a concerted effort to counter such claims, in online published statements, and, more often, on YouTube. “[This is] the church of the Armenians in Kessab after its liberation,” one rebel videographer narrated as he took viewers on a video tour of one of the city’s perfectly intact churches a day after rebels took the town. Islam, he declared proudly, teaches respect for all religions, including Christianity. “The jihadist brothers do not harm anyone. This is our religion and this is our Islam.”
Coastal Kessab, the northernmost town in the government stronghold of Latakia province, has become the latest flashpoint in a battle between regime forces and rebels determined to secure Syria’s entire northern border. It has also become the war’s latest ideological battleground, as both sides attempt to craft competing narratives in a race to come out on top, not just militarily but also morally. For all the anguished reports of persecuted Armenian Christians trumpeted by Syrian and international media outlets, few concrete details have emerged. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-government monitoring organization that has tracked casualties throughout the conflict, makes no note of dead civilians. Nor is there any photographic or video proof of destroyed churches in Kessab to date. Most Christians, according to activists and residents, fled long before the fighting started, leaving behind a deserted town.
“Contrary to what the flashy Asbarez headlines will have you believe, the rebels didn’t come in to slaughter Armenians and destroy their churches,” writes Filor Nigo, an Iraqi-Armenian activist based in the U.S, on Facebook. “Kessab is a strategically important point in this military conflict…Syria is engulfed in war and Armenians in Syria cannot honestly believe that these events would not affect them.”
Increasingly aware of their unflattering image in the media, moderate rebels are beginning to realize the necessity of deflecting regime propaganda. They are circulating a message which, whether genuine or not, borrows from the language of international human rights law to reassure observers. They insist they are waging their warfare according to universal principles even as the government portrays a different reality.
“Considering the interests and well-being of the Syrian population are our most important priorities, we confirm our commitment to international human fights law by focusing on military targets and protecting all civil institutions including schools, hospitals, places of worship, and houses,” read a recently-circulated social media statement, signed by three major rebel factions including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front. The statement has since been removed from its original source, with no explanation, but various clips, with a similar message, are still available on YouTube.
One such clip shows a stilted exchange between Islamist fighters and three elderly Christian people as they venture out of a building. The rebels shout reassurances at them while the activist behind the camera keeps reiterating that this shows how the rebels are keeping Kessab residents safe. The latter however are visibly perturbed, if not frightened, and the exchange appears somewhat forced as if playing out solely for the screen.
Of course, attempts to reassure minorities by the mostly Sunni opposition are far from new, writes Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, in a recent blog post. “Opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated.” It’s a comforting vision, but members of Syria’s minority groups still fear that it will never make the leap from policy statement to real-world implementation. The insurgency, plagued by deep schisms, has yet to demonstrate a unified coherent message. “There is a large disparity in how different rebel groups envision treating minorities,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, a nonprofit organization based in Philadelphia which promotes American interests in the Middle East. “For the jihadi groups, for example, Alawites are branded as apostates and Christians are definitely second-class citizens. Other rebel coalitions speak of protecting minorities within the framework of Islamic law, but that hardly reassures those minorities.” More generally, he concludes, “anti-Alawite and anti-Shi’a sentiment has become mainstream within the insurgency.”
That breakdown in messaging is readily apparent in Kessab. Even as some rebel groups refute regime propaganda with media-savvy and conciliatory takes, others have no qualms describing their mission in overtly sectarian terms. In one clip, a Saudi rebel commander in the Nusra Front, standing near a sign that reads “Welcome to Kessab,” promises that the Nusayris, a derogatory term for Assad’s Alawite minority sect, shall be defeated at the hands of the Sunni Muslims. “You have your planes, but we have God with us.”
The dizzying array of contradictory clips and statements which have emerged in the wake of the Kessab takeover reveal two conflicting currents within the insurgency: defiant ideologically-driven fighters whose declared mission is a struggle against “apostates” rather than democracy are sabotaging the images of coexistence that moderate leaders are putting forward. The question is whether enough factions will ever rally behind one straightforward message.