Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Recognising a genocide

The Syrian regime is using the Ottoman massacres of Armenians and Assyrians to bolster its credentials, reports Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not been known for wanting to investigate the massacres of Christians or allocate blame for the atrocities committed in the region a century ago, when it was under Ottoman rule.

In recent weeks, however, it has started to bring Ottoman war crimes to the fore, a tactic it hopes will make Ankara uncomfortable and curry favour with local Christian communities.

It is using the atrocities to try to pressure Turkey and incite Syrian Christians to side with it in its war against the opposition and to reject Turkey’s interference in Syrian affairs.

In 1915, Ottoman troops are believed to have killed more than one million Armenians and nearly half a million Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Greeks. Turkey has never officially admitted the atrocities, although its government last year offered “condolences” to descendants of the Armenian victims.

Despite calls by local Christians on the Syrian regime to recognise the massacres, a step already taken by nearly 20 nations worldwide, the government has never shown any interest in the matter. It had formerly discouraged mention of the atrocities in a bid to stay on Ankara’s good side, but all this is now changing.

The Syrian regime and media are suddenly up in arms about the massacres, stressing the brutality of the Ottoman Turks and the widespread nature of the bloodshed. The government is not only allowing churches to hold masses for the victims of a century ago, but is also broadcasting these masses through its media and sending official representatives to attend them.

Reversing an earlier ban on publicising the massacres, which the Syriacs call sayfo, or “sword,” the regime is trying to whip up Christian feelings in the hope of winning support among the country’s two million Christians, who may feel vulnerable due to the rise of Islamist extremism in the region.

When Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, delivered a sermon on the Ottoman atrocities earlier this month this was highlighted in the Syrian press, especially his remarks about the current suffering of Christians in the region.

The utilitarian nature of the regime’s newfound humanism is not lost on Christian politicians. Sayeed Moqbil, a key opposition figure, said the regime is acting “crudely” and its humanitarian concerns do not fool observers.

“Up until now Syria has never recognised the Ottoman Turkish massacres carried out against the Christians a century ago,” he said.

Members of minority groups had in the past asked the regime to recognise the massacres, but the request fell on deaf ears. The only explanation for the regime’s turnaround is that it wants the Christians to help it stay in power, Moqbil said.

Soleiman Youssef, a Syriac scholar of minority affairs, concurred with this assessment. Speaking to the Weekly, Youssef noted that some members of the Christian community are satisfied to see the regime change its position on this sensitive issue, but the reversal lacked moral authenticity.

“We do not deny that this step by the Syrian regime has caused a sense of satisfaction in various Christian circles, but many doubt the sincerity of the regime. Syria should have been one of the first countries to recognise the Syriac massacres, some of which happened on Syrian territory,” he said.

Syrian Christians have long argued that the 1915 massacres should be recognised as a crime against humanity and taught in Syrian schools, but the regime had previously ignored them.

The ultra-nationalist Committee for Union and Progress, which ran the Ottoman Empire after deposing Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1908, followed xenophobic policies that culminated in the massacre of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, a crime which Turkish governments have never fully recognised aside from an apology issued last year.

Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, eager to promote ties with Turkey, in the past ignored the massacres, just as it ignored the fact that Turkey had previously annexed a province of Syria, Iskenderun or Hatay, and stolen water from the Euphrates River.

But the memory of the massacres was kept alive by Syrian Christians, many of whom are related by blood to the victims. In Qamishli, a Syrian city on the Turkish border, there are thousands of Assyrian and Armenian families whose ancestors fled Turkey during the massacres.

Although Al-Assad poses as the protector of Syrian minorities, including the country’s two million or so Christians, he has arrested the leaders of the opposition Syriac and Chaldean parties. According to rights groups, 40 churches have been damaged in the course of Syria’s four-year civil war, with 36 being attacked by the regime and only four by the opposition.

To promote its relations with Turkey, the Syrian regime erased the Iskenderun province from official maps, declined to discuss the redrawing of borders, said nothing when Turkey withheld the Euphrates water, and allowed the Turkish army to wage attacks five km into Syrian territory in order to chase alleged insurgents.

Tensions between the two countries rose after Turkey sided with the Syrian revolution in March 2011, however, and Turkey has since offered refuge to Syrian opposition members.

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