Romanticizing the future of the Syrian Armenians

By Mihran Kalaydjian

Romanticizing the future of the Syrian Armenians


During these hot summer days that the US media calls the “silly season,” the Turkish media covers the situation of the Armenian diaspora in Syria indifferently.

Oddly enough in Syria, where 60,000 Armenians live, not a single Armenian media organization has appointed a permanent representative or correspondent. Inexplicably, none of the Armenian journalists who wrote about the situation of the Armenian diaspora in Syria have ever set foot in Syria. The articles from Armenian journalists on the situation of the Armenian diaspora in Syria are based on stories told by Syrian Armenians coming from Aleppo and Damascus and arriving at Armenia’s Zvartnots airport or the other Syrian Armenians that they randomly met while drinking tea at cafes.

In fact, most Syrian Armenians that Armenian journalists interviewed at the airport already hold Armenian citizenship. In other words, they are Armenian citizens who went to Syria in order to work or marry a Syrian citizen. One can easily understand this by hearing their Armenian accents, but no one cares about this. The Syrian Armenians reporters interview at cafes, just say: “My uncle said they have a comfortable life there,” or “My aunt said she just came from the market and there were no clashes there.” In addition to this, many journalists wrote news stories using the guise of a leader of the Armenian community in Syria who wished to remain anonymous in order to make their articles more interesting or convey their own thoughts to the Armenian government.


The information pollution and countless Arab world experts

On Armenian television channels a new “Arab world expert” is presented almost every day. We don’t know if these people were always there and waited for this event to make assessments during their professional lives, but they do their best to make the issue more incomprehensible by using a unique terminology.

Considering the situation of the Armenian media, the attitude of the Armenian Ministry for the Diaspora seems much more serious. After a long silence, the ministry has made a detailed announcement and stated it will try to help people as much as possible. However, the ministry has undermined its own creditability by announcing they would have difficulty hosting refugees if hundreds of thousands Syrian Armenians immigrate to Armenia after giving the number of Armenian living in Syria as 60,000.

Since the Armenian media suffers from the ministry’s mistakes, the issue of Syrian Armenians is placed on the top of the list of the government’s fatal errors. According to anti-government media organizations in Armenia, the government’s attitude both creates a roadblock to Armenia’s diaspora policies and highlights Russia’s influence over Armenia. They claimed that Armenia implements the strategy that Russia imposes on it even when their goals are in question.

Briefly, information pollution dominates the Armenian media. According to the Armenian media, the Turkish media unintentionally misleads the people. The information pollution in the Armenian media leads to the spread of false information and distorted analysis in the world, especially when it comes to Turkey.

Mass immigration and other myths

The Armenian news report on a possible mass immigration of the Syrian Armenians to Armenia immediately became the subject of serious analysis in the Turkish media. Here are some of the creative, groundless claims covered by both the Armenian and Turkish media:
Thousands of Syrian Armenians are in line to settle in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh — Azerbaijani territory controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists with the support of the Republic of Armenia — but the Armenian government does not support this. However, the Armenian government would exert efforts to attract the Armenian capital in Syria to Armenia.
Syrian Armenians armed themselves and are ready to join the clash. The Armenian communities in Kesap repelled the opposition forces even before government forces arrived.
The Armenian government is making serious arrangements in universities and primary schools to support Syrian Armenian children and university students. It is offering a discount to Syrian Armenians on flights.
Russia uses Syrian Armenians not only to influence Armenia but also to exert pressure on Georgia. If there is a mass emigration from Syria, Russia wants to make sure that they are settled in Georgia’s Javakhk region — a region where a large number of Armenians already live.
Turkey is doing its best to evacuate the Armenians from the Syria in order to weaken the Armenian diaspora.
If we want to give fair and reasonable answers to these claims, we have to accept the reality is quite different than what is presented in the news.
First of all, the Armenian community in Syria is showing no intentions of migrating to Armenia en masse. Beginning in the 1980s, the members of the Armenian community in Syria have migrated to several countries, particularly to the US and Canada, by using Armenian capital that is planned to be transferred to Armenia. In other words, Armenians whose financial status was good enough have not chosen Armenia as the country they will live in.
In fact, some middle-class Syrian Armenians have applied for Armenian citizenship. According to the data provided by the Armenian Ministry for the Diaspora, 3,300 Syrian Armenians have obtained Armenian citizenship. However, that does not mean all these 3,300 Syrian Armenians will reside in Armenia. Until now, only 60 Syrian citizens have wanted help from Armenia and migrated there.
The Syrian Armenians, who are both Syrian and Armenian citizens, are middle-class Armenians either running businesses in Armenia or holding an American or European country’s citizenship.
Like many of the Armenian diaspora, Syrian Armenians are apolitical and deem themselves lucky if the turnover of their companies are good. The reasons why the Armenian groups have acted in favor of Bashar al-Assad’s regime so far is due to Islamophobia triggered by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s attacks targeting Syrian Armenians in the past and the pro-status quo mentality of Armenian diaspora.
As is the case in Turkey, the uncertainties of a new regime concerning the rights of minorities and their loyalty to the secular regime force Armenians to protect the current situation at the expense of undermining democracy and human rights. Of course, they provide passive support. Thus, it is perfectly safe to argue that even imagining that Syrian Armenians have armed themselves and they are ready to join the clash is impossible. The only thing they would do is have some armed watchmen in the regions with a sizable Armenian population as a precaution against possible attacks.

The aid sent by the Armenian government to Syrian Armenians and arrangements they reportedly have made are over-exaggerated. They would not change their university system. Since the Soviet era, Armenian universities allocate quotas for students of the Armenian diaspora. The only change is a 20 percent reduction of school fees for Syrian Armenian students. For a country that others claim has a serious diaspora policy, asking students who have left their countries and come to Armenia for higher education to pay more tuition fees would be a big contradiction. When we turn to claims concerning the schools, this issue is only a student exchange program that aims to promote teaming Armenian children from Armenia with children from the diaspora. The program lasts only 2 weeks.

The diaspora policy that Armenia cannot develop

Although both the Armenian government and the Armenian Ministry for the Diaspora are trying their best, they neither distribute free flight tickets nor beg diaspora Armenians to migrate to Armenia. Armenian Diaspora Minister Hranuş Hakopyan has underlined that the Armenian community should continue to stay in Syria and maintain their existence there.

The Armenian government has moved the Armenian Embassy in Aleppo to another district with a considerable Armenian population and allows the embassy to grant citizenship to Syrian Armenians who previously applied.

In addition to this, Syrian Armenians are now able to obtain a sticker visa at the border gates. When we consider that for close to 20 years, Armenia has given Turkish citizens — both Turks and Armenians — a sticker-type visa at border gates, this is not a big favor.

Given the fact that Armenia has very serious social security and infrastructural problems, the Armenian government’s decision to provide houses and job opportunities to Syrian Armenians will cause serious unease within the country. In the end, whether the Armenian government accepts it or not, they have two serious problems: easing migration and the economy’s recovery. Thus, they can only help the Syrian refugees in a reasonable way.

The institution that should be concerned about the future of the Armenian diaspora in Syria and is worth studying is the Armenian Ministry for the Diaspora. Although the ministry does not accept that it makes mistakes on this issue, they underlined that they will accelerate their efforts. Stressing that the subjects of these stories are human beings, the ministry warned the media to avoid practicing false journalism. Trying to analyze the developments in Syria and their impact on Armenia, while including discourses on the Armenian diaspora in Russia, Georgia and Turkey, only produces conspiracy theories.

Now, the most ridiculous impact of the pollution of information concerning developments in Syria is leaving its mark on Turkish-Armenian relationships. The unfounded claim that Armenia would resettle Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is spreading. And this reminds me of the horrifying headlines run by the Turkish media in response to Turkey’s decision to allow religious ceremonies at Van’s Akdamar Church.

Such illusions are useless. Just like diaspora Armenians in New York, Paris or Buenos Aires, who did not settle in Van after the opening of Akdamar Church, the diaspora Armenians in Aleppo and Damascus do not want to live in Nagorno-Karabakh. They visit Nagorno-Karabakh as tourists and express admiration but they return to Syria.

A realistic perspective would upset those who adopt romantic-nationalist perspectives on the issue but would relieve the Turkish and Azerbaijani people. These ridiculous scenarios are far from realistic and do nothing for the frozen bilateral relations.

Syrian Armenians in Armenia – Home away from home?

By Mihran Kalaydjian, CHA

Syrian Armenians in Armenia – Home away from home?


IT IS a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The war in Syria has uprooted 40% of the population. Some 6.5m Syrians have sought refuge in other parts of the country; about 2.2m people have fled abroad. More are leaving every day.

Neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, already host millions of displaced people from earlier crises in the region, and struggle to cope with the newcomers. Humanitarian agencies have raised only a fraction of the funds required to help those in need. It is a precarious, and potentially dangerous, situation.

Syrian Armenians, at least, may have another option. Armenia sees itself as the “homeland” for Armenians worldwide. The government says that Syrian Armenians who go to Armenia are therefore not refugees in need of protection, but members of the diaspora coming home. Most governments of countries that host Syrian refugees yearn for the day they will leave. The authorities in Yerevan, in contrast, would like Syrian Armenians to stay.

A small Armenian settlement has existed in Syria for centuries, centered on Aleppo. The sanctuary it offered to people fleeing the Armenian genocide in 1915 greatly increased its numbers. Over the past few years, this onetime refuge has become a source of flight. As Robert Fisk  wrote recently in The Independent, a British daily, 65 Syrian Armenians have been killed since the war began in Syria, and over 100 kidnapped. Religious fanatics have also destroyed Armenian orthodox churches.

The Armenian government estimates that up to 80,000 Syrian Armenians lived in Syria prior to the current war. 12,000 or so are now living as refugees in Lebanon. Approximately 11,000 Syrian Armenians have moved to Armenia. And another 10,000 or so more have sought asylum elsewhere.

Azerbaijan has accused Armenia of deliberately resettling Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a charge that Yerevan denies. Either way, the numbers allegedly involved–200 or so–are relatively small. The vast majority of Syrian Armenians in Armenia live in Yerevan. The Armenian government eases their integration by granting them citizenship and allowing access to healthcare and education. Emotional ties to Armenia and a common language are further attractions, even if most new arrivals are seeing their homeland for the first time.

Such help only goes so far. Roughly half of those who arrived have been able to get by on their own resources. Some have found jobs or set up businesses, despite the high level of unemployment in Armenia. Yet others arrive with little to their name, in need of shelter, food and clothing. A number of organizations provide temporary accommodation. The government would like to build apartment blocks to provide housing on a permanent basis. But that may take money it doesn’t have.

Will more Syrian Armenians head to Armenia? That depends on the situation inside Syria, and the quality of life of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. For now, both look grim. Approximately 120 more people fly to Yerevan each week from Lebanon. Moreover, many of the Syrian Armenians in Armenia have subsisted on their savings so far. Those are likely to run out at some stage, increasing the need for humanitarian support.

Like Azerbaijan and Georgia , Armenia is used to dealing with displaced people. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s drove up to 1m people from their homes. More than two decades later, many displaced people in both countries continue to live in poor conditions.