An internal view of Syria

Q&A: Hancock man discusses childhood in Syria and the current situation in his homeland

  • Barkev Kassarjian, right, with Kevork Toroyan, his classmate from Aleppo College in Syria, during a 2010 visit to the Crac des Chevaliers, a 12th-century Crusader castle in southwestern Syria.
  • Barkev Kassarjian
  • Barkev Kassarjian, left, and Kevork Toroyan, his classmate from Aleppo College in Syria, dining in the stone courtyard of the Yasmeen d'Alep hotel in Aleppo during Kassarjian's visit to Syria in 2010.
  • Barkev Kassarjian, left, and a friend with the head priest at the Karasoon Mangantz, a 500-year-old Armenian church in Aleppo, Syria.

Barkev Kassarjian, a 77-year-old resident of Hancock, was born in Syria and grew up in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, located near the Turkish border. Kassarjian, who left Syria as a young man and came to the United States, was educated at Northeastern and Harvard universities.

He has been a professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., since 1980 and is also an emeritus professor of strategy and organization at the IMD International business school in Lausanne, Switzerland. Prior to joining Babson and IMD, Kassarjian was on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He has served as consultant to organizations in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East in such areas as leading change, strategic restructuring, and senior management team building.

In 2010, Kassarjian traveled to Syria. He shared his perspective on the country last week by email in response to questions from the Ledger-Transcript.

You grew up in Syria and left at a fairly early age. Can you describe what it was like when you were there and why you left?

I left Syria in 1954, when I was around 16,  on my own, as the youngest of four children. We are Armenian. Both of my parents were survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide by Turkey, and they came to Aleppo, my birthplace, separately, my father having survived by being an interpreter between Turkish and German high command, and my mother by being in an American Missionary College in Marash. The missionaries managed to save the girls who stayed there instead of trying to join their families on the forced march to the desert.  I went to an American private boys school, named Aleppo College (it was actually only a junior college, but the high school was considered the best in those parts), and I enjoyed my childhood.  But around the age of 12 I decided that I would not live there; I did not trust the political process that I had witnessed, the populace was easily roused or moved by poorly reasoned orators. 

I was somewhat precocious (I had jumped three times in earlier school, was the youngest in my high school class), constantly debated and trapped my teachers, and I was most attracted to the “checks and balances” in the U.S. political system... through a brilliant professor of history, named Nouri El-Khaldi, who taught us the different forms of democracy.  I had also recited the Gettysburg address at a school function, and was captured by it. 

At the time Syria was supposed to be a democracy, after the French mandate had expired. We had a president, etc., but it was all a sham arrangement.

You were in Syria three years ago. How would you describe the political climate and the attitudes of the Syrian people at that time?

I was in Syria with one of my Aleppo College classmates. Having been head of the largest construction company in the Middle East for many years, he arranged the whole trip. I was initially reluctant, my U.S. passport says Place of Birth: Syria!    

Our trip was delightful. Syria seemed to be thriving in 2010. I did not sense any political turmoil. The various minorities were well protected, although I sensed some geographic resentment, for example between those from Aleppo vs. Damascus.  There were also many anti-regime jokes.

Do you have a sense that the Bashar al-Assad regime is responsible for the chemical attacks that have caused so much concern? If not, who would have been responsible?

On the use of chemical weapons, I don’t have a strong or clear view. I am sure Bashar al-Assad does have huge stockpiles, and he is capable of using them, but I don’t think he is stupid enough to use the stuff at this time and under these circumstances.  And I doubt that the rebels got hold of the stuff, or have the means to deliver it. I suspect it was done by some over-zealous military head; remember that Bashar inherited his father’s entire secret service apparatus, and I suspect they control him far more than he controls them. This is my best guess.

Are the Syrian people in general fairly united in opposition to Assad, or does he have strong supporters? Is it likely that he might be overthrown like other rulers such as Khadafy or Mubarak? If that were to happen, what would the future hold for Syria?

No, Syrians are certainly not united against the Assad regime: All the minorities — Kurds, Alawis, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Armenians, and there are also Assyrians and other smaller minority groups — think that any alternative to Assad would be worse. Recent events — churches being torched in Syria and Egypt, businesses attacked, etc. — have not reassured them.

What are options for the United States to take regarding Syria? Do you think military intervention of some type would be reasonable?

I don’t see any military option that is attractive at this stage. All the various scenarios have quite serious unintended consequences. At the  start  of the rebellion, when the movement was led by true political-freedom seekers, secular, educated city groups, we had the best chance to influence events. The longer we waited the more al-Qaeda types moved in, to the point that now there are quite a number of competing groups, and the center of gravity of the rebellion has moved over toward the extremist Islamic camps.

Kassarjian also commented on how Russian influence impacts both Syria and American foreign policy.

The Russians have a significant presence in Syria. Their naval base at Tartous (south of Latakia, the main Syrian commercial port) is large, and most significantly I am told there are now something in the neighborhood of 10,000 Russian military married to Syrian women. Russia will not abandon the base or endanger their troops with Syrian wives.

Another item: The most recent proposals are wonderfully self-serving for both Russia and Syria. The poison gas is far less important as a means to fight the rebels, the military is winning anyway, and this way they keep their aircraft, absolutely crucial, and their communications networks, like key means to control events. And Russia keeps its interests intact. So poor Obama not only has painted himself into a corner, but assured the triumph of his supposed adversaries.

— Interview by Dave Anderson

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