On Twitter, she made what seemed like a simple cry to save the citizens of Kessab, a town in Syria that’s been the scene of intense fighting in recent days. The tweet was even welcomed by one of the country's main rebel groups. But, as with all things Syria, the reality is far more complicated. Kessab was, until recently, part of a stronghold for Damascus dictator Bashar al-Assad. Some are accusing the campaign to “save” the place of using fake images as part of a possible stealth movement to support the Assad regime.
Her 72-day marriage and recent Vogue cover notwithstanding, this isn’t the first time Kardashian has lent her sizeable name to a controversial issue. Back in April 2011, Kim featured on the cover of the Turkish edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. Bad timing. Kim is, of course, Armenian, and April is the month the Armenians pay remembrance to Turkey’s genocide of the Armenians in the years during and following World War I. Then, in Dec. 2012, Kim paid a (paid) visit to Bahrain, one of the world’s more oppressive regimes, to help generate publicity for a Millions of Milkshakes restaurant chain. She even lauded the “amazing hospitality” of Sheikh Khalifa and the “Kingdom of Bahrain” on Twitter (before deleting the tweets).
Then, on Sunday, Kardashian gave a massive social media bump to the #SaveKessab campaign, tweeting out the following to her 20.4 million Twitter acolytes:
Unlike Barker, the issue hits closer to home for Kardashian.
The Kardashian clan helms from Karakale, a village situated in Eastern Turkey close to the Armenian border. Karakale was, back then, an ethnic Armenian village. Kim’s great-great grandparents on her father’s side are Sam and Harom Kardaschoff, and “Kardaschoff” is the Russian spelling of the Armenian name “Kardashian.” Her two great-great-grandparents, along with her great-grandfather, fled Karakale during what Armenians refer to as the Medz Yeghern (“great crime”)—the genocide of Armenians and expulsion from their homeland, which constitutes present-day Turkey, in the years following World War I. Men were massacred, and Armenian women and children were taken on death marches to the Syrian Desert.
Sam and Harom Kardaschoff, along with their son, Tatos, moved to Los Angeles and started a waste management business. Then, Tatos changed his name to Tom, and the family angled into the meatpacking business. Robert Kardashian, the father of Kim and her celebrity siblings, who was also a big-shot lawyer that served on the O.J. Simpson defense team, is Tom’s grandson.
“I was raised with a huge Armenian influence, always hearing stories of Armenia, celebrating Armenian holidays,” said Kim. “My father taught us to never forget where we came from.”
Last week, that family history collided with today’s civil war in Syria. Syrian rebels, including fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, advanced into Latakia, the northwestern coastal province that is the ancestral home to the Assad family. Clashes between the rebels and regime loyalists, including the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces, prompted the flight of hundreds of Christian Armenians from the border town of Kessab, into the provincial capital city of Latakia. Kessab has now fallen to opposition fighters, giving them another strategic foothold in the north through which they’ll no doubt seek to run weapons and resupplies from the Turkish region of Hatay, which has served as a de facto rebel barracks outside of Syria.
Armenians constitute about 1 percent of the total Syrian population, making them the seventh-largest ethnicity in the country, which has been torn apart by almost three years of civil war. And while it is certainly true that Syrian Christians cannot be so easily divided into pro- and anti-Assad camps (there are Christian units of the rebel Free Syrian Army, for instance), the coastal enclaves of the country tend to be more loyalist.
Most of Kessab’s Armenians do indeed back the Assad regime, seeing it as their only guarantor against radical Islamists who now make up a sizable part of the Syrian opposition. For this reason, rebels have attempted to reassure the Armenians that they will not be persecuted or harmed, nor will their holy sites be desecrated; they’ve allegedly posted videos showing rebels protecting Armenian church in Kessab.
Nevertheless, such reassurances have failed to win over the local population, much less the far-flung and influential Armenian diaspora, which in the United States has a powerful lobbying arm. The fear of another Armenian genocide, such as the one perpetrated by the collapsing Ottoman Empire in 1915, is palpable, judging by the social media campaigns to “Save Kessab” initiated by grassroots U.S. Armenian organizations.
One of Syria's main rebel groups is welcoming the attention from Kardashian.
“We are glad Kim Kardashian is taking an interest in this issue, as we too are concerned about extremist groups’ persecution of minorities,” Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told The Daily Beast. “The Free Syrian Army has put out a statement committed to protecting of citizens of Armenian descent and to maintaining the integrity of their religious sites and protecting them from the Assad's attacks and use of indiscriminate fire, which continue against innocent people.”
But while no one could argue with the goal of saving civilians caught in a horrific crossfire, some of the tactics of the Save Kessab campaign have come under heavy fire. One of the cornerstone images of the movement purports to be of a Syrian Christian, slain by a crucifix shoved down her throat. That image, in fact, taken from a horror movie, according to the online debunkery site Snopes.com.
A second image, widely circulated by the movement, claims to show a victim of a recent massacre in the region—a decapitated young girl in a frilly blue dress. The girl lost her life in 2012, not during the battles of the last few weeks.
The use of the images has led critics of the #SaveKessab effort to brand it as nothing more than pro-Assad propaganda.
It’s unlikely, of course, that Kardashian took much time to investigate these claims. As one wag on Twitter put it: