Exit Plan: Armenians of Syria may need escape if Assad regime collapses

The anti-government uprising in Syria that has taken more than 6,000 lives has become an issue of serious concerns for the 80,000-Armenian community residing in various parts of the country.

Last week in Aleppo, where the Armenian community is mainly centered, 25-year old soldier Vigen Hayrapetian was among the 28 victims of explosions. More than ten days ago an Armenian youth from a wealthy family was kidnapped and was released last Friday in exchange for ransom money. (The Armenian community, however, does not view that kidnapping incident as an ethnic issue directed against Armenians).

These incidents have raised concerns among Armenians of Syria, although in the cities with large Armenian communities, namely in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Kesab and Kamishli, the situation is reported to be stable and manageable; nonetheless, the overall instability in the country, naturally affects the Armenian community as well.

During the Wednesday parliament session in Armenia, Premier Tigran Sargsyan said answering Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutyun party leader Vahan Hovhannisyan’s question on what measures the government has taken for worst-case-scenario developments: “We will take all necessary steps to show full support to our compatriots”.

The Armenian community of Syria is one of the biggest in the Middle East, and has lead a well-off and safe life during the three decades of the Assads’ reign (father and son), and in case of power turnover dangerous changes cannot be ruled out.

Experts believe that a change of power may have unpredictable consequences for Armenians, considering two facts: first of all that the majority of opposition are Islamists with al-Qaeda representatives among them and anti-Christian sentiments, and second, that their transition/national council was formed in Turkey.

Ruben Safrastyan, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at RA National Academy of Sciences (NAA), does not rule out a possibility of “violence against Christians, and especially against Armenians”, should chaos rule in the country.

Armenia’s strategic partner Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov denied the accusations of supporting Assad: “We are neither friends, nor allies with President Assad.”

However, Russia and China again vetoed on Monday the UN Security Council’s resolution criticizing the Syrian authorities and calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s resignation; on Tuesday Lavrov met Al-Assad urging to start negotiations with the opposition and refused the international appeal to try to convince Assad to resign.

Many in Armenia hope that Russia would be able to resist international pressure and not go against Syria; some Armenia-based politicians, nonetheless, have called upon Armenians of Syria to take a neutral stance.

That, however, is not easy for Armenians.

“It is natural that the majority of Armenians would support Bashar al-Assad, since they led safe and prosperous lives under his leadership, ethnic rights were fully protected, they have schools, churches, and it is under that regime Armenians see the chance for ethnic survival,” says Arax Pashamyan, senior specialist of Arab studies at NAA.

As representatives of the Syrian-Armenian community say, there isn’t specific ethno-motivated encroachment upon Armenians or any other ethnic minorities, however, the overall instability in the country has triggered a tangible rise in crime.

“Of course it’s rather quiet in the cities where Armenians reside, however, there are social issues, energy crisis, for some 6 hours a day electricity is cut off; it’s not dangerous, but gives ground for worries,” Nairi Mkrtchyan, 43, told ArmeniaNow. Mkrtchyan moved to Armenia a decade ago from Kamishli but his family, his parents are still there.

Armenia states its readiness to accept Syrian Armenians, but head of RA Migration Agency Gagik Yeganyan does not anticipate a big flow of emigrants from Syria.

“Judging from the inflow of emigrants from Iraq to Armenia, I don’t believe there will be mass inflow from Syria either, because our state cannot offer substantial help and support. That’s why they’ll try to move to more developed countries,” says Yeganyan.

Syrian Armenian Petros Gasparian, who recently bought an apartment in Yerevan, doesn’t share this opinion.

“Maybe they are not informed and don’t know how difficult it is for citizens of Syria to be issued a visa to other countries. To us Armenia remains the only salvation. At present many of our friends who managed to sell their apartments in time, are buying a house in Yerevan,” Gasparyan told ArmeniaNow, adding that many people are now deprived of that opportunity as well, because it has become impossible to sell real estate since the clashes started.