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Armenia Stays Neutral on Syrian War

Despite attack on ethnic Armenian village, officials in Yerevan say it is vital to avoid getting drawn into conflict.
By Arpi Harutyunyan

People in Armenia are increasingly concerned about the fate of their ethnic kin in Syria, but their government says there is little it can do as it must maintain neutrality in the conflict.

“Armenia cannot take anyone’s side in the Syrian situation,” said President Serzh Sargsyan at an April 11 meeting of the ruling Republican party.

Sargsyan was responding to a question about an attack on Kessab, a mainly Armenian village in Syria. On March 21, the village was captured by rebel forces who reportedly came in from Turkey across the nearby border.

Around 400 Armenian families fled to the Syrian city of Latakia. They were met by six members of parliament from Armenia who took the opportunity to condemn Turkish policy on Syria, and demanded international action to defend civilians in the country.

Some Armenian diaspora organisations have accused the Turkish authorities of aiding the Syrian rebels who carried out the Kessab attack – allegations the Turks deny.

Armenian representatives at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) lobbied for a formal condemnation of the Kessab attack, calling it a terrorist act.

“The… attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist groups across the border from the territory of Turkey,” said a statement signed by 22 PACE members, five of them from Armenians. “The brutal actions, which targeted largely the civilian population, resulted in forced displacement of the local population. The extremist groups have desecrated Kessab’s Armenian churches and caused significant damage to property of inhabitants.”

Kessab is especially treasured as it has one of the last remaining populations that can be traced back to the medieval Armenian kingdom of Cilicia.

Vicken Cheterian, a research associate at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, warned against Yerevan taking sides in the Syrian conflict.

“It looks like we support one side and see the other as our enemy,” he said. “And that means we are drawing all Armenians into the conflict.”

Vahan Badasyan, a member of parliament in Armenian-controlled Nagorny Karabakh, suggested recruiting irregular forces to go and fight on the government side in Syria. Badasyan fought in the Karabakh war of the early 1990s, and said he was prepared to go to Kessab himself to defend ethnic Armenians.

“Armenia can’t send regular military units to fight in someone else’s civil war,” he told a press conference. “But it would be very good… if just a few dozen people from Armenia and Artsakh [Nagorny Karabakh] extended a hand of friendship to our brothers in Syria and took up arms against the Turks and those Armenian-hating Islamists.”

On April 21, five volunteers were stopped at Yerevan airport and prevented from travelling to Beirut and on to Latakia.

President Sargsyan made clear he viewed Badasyan’s proposal as extremely irresponsible.

“This would be reckless, a really serious step that would put our country in danger. Even the Armenians living in Syria must maintain neutrality,” he said.

While avoiding taking sides in the Syrian conflicts, Yerevan has opened its doors to Armenian refugees.

According to the ministry for diaspora affairs, 10,000 Armenians have arrived from Syria since the start of 2012. The Armenian population in Syria is estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000.

Most of the new arrivals have somewhere to live thanks to international and local aid organisations, and officials are discussing building a whole district for the refugees in the town of Ashtarak, to be named New Aleppo.

The National Centre for Developing Small and Medium-Sized Businesses has included 56 Syrian nationals in its assistance programme, offering them subsidised loans. Another 25 businesses are in the pipeline.

Among the new arrivals, 71 are doctors who have registered with the health ministry, and 54 of them already have jobs in Armenia.

“Of course it’s good that Armenia is extending the hand of friendship to our ethnic kin from Syria,” said Cheterian. “If they want to come to Armenia, it’s essential to do everything to make that happen. However, it’s important to do it in such a way that if security is restored, they can return and ensure the survival of their community.”

Arpi Harutyunyan is a reporter for Armnews television in Armenia.

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