Syria's Armenians: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


Two suicide car bombs targeting Syrian regional military and security headquarters shook Aleppo on Feb. 10, claiming 28 victims, among them army conscript Viken Hairabedian. The explosion was one of the worst instances of violence to hit the country since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad began in March 2011. Hairabedian’s death shocked the Syrian-Armenian community, which has thus far maintained an official line of neutrality, although unofficially many support the Assad government. As the most recent attack demonstrated, violence is moving closer to major cities like Aleppo and Damascus where thousands of Armenians call home.

The Armenian Weekly reached out to Syrian-Armenians to shed light on the challenges facing Syrian Christians, in general, and Armenians, specifically.

Syrian-Armenians want to be optimistic about the community’s future. “We always hear the sound of explosions and tank shells, but we are safe—at least for now,” said one activist, who spoke with the Weekly on condition of anonymity.

The Armenian community—and, in general, the Syrian Christian community that makes up roughly 8-10 percent of the population—is weary of the uncertain future. “They are facing a new phase. Armenians, like all minorities in the country, are vulnerable and fear a collapse of the security structures in Syria,” Nora Arissian, a historian and lecturer at Damascus University, told the Weekly.

Fr. Karekin Bedourian, who traveled to Syria in November 2011, observed how lives had been put on hold and a general atmosphere of fear dominated every activity. “We could not travel from city to city without concern for our safety. The rebels were everywhere. They were even persecuting those who were not joining them and participating in the protests,” he said.

“In the past, we used to travel at night throughout the country without any fear, even in cities considered fanatically Islamic. Now, people are afraid to come out in their own cities,” he added.

Originally from Aleppo, Fr. Bedourian recently moved to North Andover, Mass., where he is the pastor of St. Gregory Armenian Church.

The insecurity Bedourian describes hit closer to home for Armenians about a week before Hairabedian’s death, when another young Armenian man, Kevork Chubukchian, was abducted in Aleppo. His kidnappers have demanded a large sum of money for his release.

Chubukchian “was targeted perhaps not for his identity, but most likely for his wealth,” said a Syrian Armenian from Aleppo (hereafter referred to as T.N.). The blame cannot rest squarely on the shoulders of the opposition, he explained, as the Syrian government is ultimately responsible for the security in the country. “The government is not only failing to do its job, but it is also killing civilians,” he said, and accused authorities of freeing criminals under the guise of “general amnesty for political prisoners,” while, in reality, most political prisoners remain behind bars.

“The regime thinks that when the level of fear rises, the demand for security will overshadow the demand for freedom,” T.N. said.

Fr. Bedourian, however, lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the opposition. The rebels do not comprehend the true meaning of freedom and patriotism, he said, and instead choose to act as pawns in the hands of foreign governments, and take arms against their own.

A neutral course

Despite high tensions and increasing violence, the Syrian-Armenian community strives to navigate a neutral course. It has refrained from taking an official and public position, although members continuously voice their willingness to stand by the government—regardless of who holds power—for the sake of peace and stability, said T.N.

Historian Ara Sanjian believes there is nothing the Syrian Armenians can do in this internal conflict. “They only need to save their heads, and hope that the lightning won’t strike them too hard,” he told the Weekly.

“The community does not have faith in the alternative, and thus it is attached to this regime—especially because they have the example of Iraq right in front of their eyes. Saddam was a ruthless dictator, but he kept certain elements—especially religious extremist—in his country in check. Now, they’ve been let loose, and the violence is widespread,” said Sanjian, adding that as a result, half of Iraq’s Christian population has fled and will most likely never return. The Americans did not anticipate some of the consequences when they decided to invade the country in 2003, he said. “Now there is an attempt to establish some sort of American-style freedom… but in the process a centuries-old Christian culture in the country is being erased.”

What happened to Iraq’s Christians is in Assad’s favor, Sanjian explained, because Syrians see what happened post-Saddam. “They prefer to put up with the current regime and enjoy social freedoms, rather than turn into another Iraq. Those freedoms may disappear tomorrow if the Muslim Brotherhood or other hard-line Sunni Muslim groups come to power.”

In fact, according to T.N., some Syrian Armenians have vocalized their support for Assad by taking to the streets in pro-government rallies, while a few are working for the Syrian intelligence service, reporting on the activities of fellow Armenians.

Members of the Syrian-Armenian community would face a heavy-handed response if they were to veer off course, and voice support for the opposition: Dissenters would be labeled “traitors” and fall victim to a “witch hunt,” he said.

T.N. believes the path of neutrality is the wisest choice. “Any wrong step could cost innocent lives now or in the future. We must have the Lebanese-Armenian community as an example during that country’s 15 years of civil war. If you can stay neutral, that is the best option. If you can’t, try to put your eggs in more than one basket.”

Yet, some Armenians in the community have joined the opposition. A Syrian Armenian activist from Raqqa, 27-year-old Jimmy Shahinian, was imprisoned by authorities after he was accused of being part of the opposition. Shahinian was freed on Dec. 19.

The question of how much support the opposition enjoys is a contentious one among the Syrian-Armenians interviewed for this piece, as many believe the majority of Syrians are too fearful to voice their position.

While T.N. asserts the rebels enjoy the sympathy and support of broad segments of the public, another activist, who wished to remain anonymous, said the real numbers of opposition supporters are unknown, since many avoid speaking out. “Perhaps 20 percent of Syrians are openly opposed to the system,” she said. “An equal proportion are supporters of the regime, and the rest of us are afraid to express our views.”

“You should know that the website of the Armenian Weekly will be closed in Syria if you write anything against the system or the Mukhabarat [the Syrian intelligence service] in your article,” she added.

Revolution or reform

Arissian, who is a member of the Arab Writers’ Union, thinks the uprisings stemmed from corruption and economic hardships affecting a segment of Syrian society. Assad responded to the initial discontent by signing new laws and assembling a committee tasked with rewriting the Syrian Constitution. “These reforms would transfer Syria into a multi-party political system,” she said.

Unlike Arissian, Sanjian is skeptical about any real reform taking root in Syria. Although he believes that Assad may be more generous in guaranteeing social freedoms for the country’s inhabitants than a successor regime—likely to be dominated by hard-line Sunni Islamists—he is unhappy with the way the issue of reform has been tackled by the government so far.

The Syrian government and its security agencies have long infiltrated every aspect of Syrian society. Since the uprisings began, the government has been on the offensive, accusing rebels of being foreign agents. “I still don’t have much faith in the proposed reforms because there have not been many practical steps, or even a widely publicized national debate on the matter,” Sanjian said.

For T.N., what is happening is no less than a full-blown revolution, and it is a breakthrough for a public used to the watchful eye of the secret intelligence services. “It broke the wall of fear and silence, and people started to talk about taboos,” he said.

Foreign intervention

Regardless of their position, most Syrian-Armenians seem apprehensive of foreign intervention, believing that Syrians’ interests do not factor prominently in the calculations of foreign governments.

Specifically, Turkey’s role in supporting the opposition is a cause for concern for many Syrian-Armenians. “Turkey is creating problems,” said Fr. Bedourian, adding that he distrusts the Turkish position and believes there is an element of “evil” in Turkey’s policies towards Syria. During his visit to the country in November, Fr. Bedourian frequently heard news and anecdotes about Syrian citizens who trained in Turkey for months before returning to Syria and joining the opposition. Some of those were apprehended by Syrian authorities, he said.

Syrian opposition members have formed a semi-official government in exile, the Syrian National Council (SNC), headquartered in Istanbul. The SNC is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, as well as other dissident groups and individuals.

“There was some talk that when [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov visited Syria a few days ago, the Syrians sent back with him to Turkey over 40 Turkish operatives they had arrested in recent weeks. If this is true, what is also significant is that the Syrian government did not make much fuss about it,” said Sanjian. Lavrov’s visit to Syria on Feb. 7 came days after Russia and China vetoed a UN resolution supporting an Arab plan to urge Assad to step down.

According to Sanjian, Turkey, having gained confidence from its significant economic growth in recent years, is trying to find a shoe that fits. “Turkey is acting like a fresh college graduate without a job, sending resumes everywhere. We don’t know who will ultimately accept her for a full-time job, which will determine Turkey’s future course in international affairs. Her resume has not gotten so far a response from the Europeans, and that is why she is also knocking at other doors,” he said.

Arissian, too, is skeptical of foreign intervention, which she considers driven by narrow interests. Turkey is merely using the unrest in Syria to advance its influence in the region, she said.

Fr. Bedourian thinks “outside intervention led Syria to this unfortunate situation. Here, in the U.S., the concept [of freedom] is different and they want to see the same type of freedom in Syria, which I think is currently impossible [to achieve].”

“I agree that Syria needs a lot of changes and reforms…but not this way,” he added. “Every country needs reforms, changes, and improvements—even first-world countries—but no one has the right to sow the seeds of hatred and destruction in the country where they live and work. The world must leave Syria and its people alone to solve their own problems.”

According to Sanjian, the U.S. is pursuing its own, as well as Israel’s, interests in the region. “There’s the issue of Israel finally relaxing; for that to happen, Iran must weaken, Hezbollah must weaken. These things are more important to the U.S., and if they can evoke the cause of democracy in the process, that’s a bonus for them in public diplomacy. The West, they say, wants democracy. Well, if that is its major objective, why don’t they want the same in Bahrain?”

“The majority of the population in Bahrain is Shiite, hence believed to be close to Iran. The Bahraini king, who is Sunni, crushed the rebellion with direct Saudi assistance. In Syria, the situation is the reverse: The minority Alawi community dominates the country’s politics and has been close to Iran. Most of the regime’s opponents come from the majority Sunni community in the country,” Sanjian explained.

Muslim Brotherhood: a threat?

Many observers fear that if the Assad government falls, its replacement will be much more authoritarian. “Many voices warn that the Arab Spring will lead to an Islamic winter,” said Arissian.

According to Sanjian, the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized opposition in Syria. “If this regime falls, and Syria remains intact, it is the most likely force that will gain control, similar to what happened in Egypt,” he said. “The rest of the opposition leaders who are sitting in France and Istanbul say a lot of things that are palatable for Western media, but on the ground, I don’t think they hold any real power, or that they can score substantial gains during any hypothetical post-Assad elections. We saw an example of that in Egypt.”

The electability of the Muslim Brotherhood lies in the fact that the majority of the population has little education and would be moved by religious rhetoric, argued Sanjian, who takes the possibility of a Sunni Islamic belt forming in the Middle East seriously. “In Tunisia the Sunni Islamists are already in power. Libya will likely fall to them as well. The Muslim Brotherhood is now the largest party in Egypt. Hamas in Palestine is a local version of the Muslim Brotherhood; Syria—and, if it falls, then the Jordanian Parliament, too—will probably be taken over by the local Brotherhood branch. And finally, there’s Turkey, where the ruling party is another version of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

But there is no guarantee that these forces will cooperate after gaining power in their respective countries, he said, and it is probable that they may form rivalries. “For instance, there will possibly be a struggle to decide which foreign capital will control any post-Assad Syrian government. Will it be under Ankara’s thumb? Riyadh’s? Or Cairo’s?”

More than posing a threat to Christians, there is a greater chance of the Muslim Brotherhood repressing Syria’s Alawis, whom they consider heretics. If the central power structure collapses, there is even a chance of the Alawis, Druzes, and Kurds seeking control over certain regions, according to Sanjian.

T.N., however, argues that it is unlikely that fundamental Islamists will come to power, or suppress minorities. Armenians, he said, believe that the only alternative to the Assad regime is fundamental Islam, and that is false. “Even if Islamists win, the possibility of targeting minorities and Armenians is highly exaggerated by the current regime, to portray themselves as the only possible option for minorities. The only fear might be the transitional period from collapse to rebuilding. If the transition is accompanied with chaos, anything might happen. If the transition goes smoother and easier, it won’t be that dangerous.”

Fr. Bedourian maintains the threat against Christian minorities is real—and already palpable. “Looking at the situation in Egypt and especially [as it relates] to the Christians in Egypt, there is a serious fear in Syria for the Christians and minority groups,” he said.

Armenians in Syria, past and present

Between 60,000-70,000 Armenians call Syria home, constituting less than 0.5 percent of the country’s total population. More than half of them live in Aleppo, with the other half scattered in such cities as Latakia, Homs, Kamishli, Hasake, Yakoubiye, Raqqa, Kessab, and, of course, the capital Damascus.

The community is not a politically active one—not from the lack of want, but because they are not given the opportunity, said Sanjian. Their position was worse before the current president’s father, Hafez al Assad, came to power. For instance, in the early 1950’s, Armenian schools, along with other foreign institutions, were closed for the purpose of “Arabization” and to rid the country of alleged foreign influence. Lengthy negotiations eventually secured their reopening.

In 1967, after the Arabs lost the war to Israel, Armenian schools were once again threatened with permanent closure. Again, an arrangement was made: Armenian was to be taught only as a language of religious ritual, as a tool to understand the liturgy and teachings of the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical churches, explained Sanjian. Armenian classes, however, would encompass other topics as well, from history to literature. It is a system, said Sanjian, where authorities know of what is being taught, but they continue to turn a blind eye because they know that the maintenance of Armenian ethnic identity poses no threat to Syria.

Over the past 10-20 years, the number of students in Armenian schools has remained high, now even surpassing the number in Lebanese-Armenian schools, and Armenian-language textbooks have been produced in Aleppo at an impressive rate.

Arissian pointed out that during the presidency of Hafez Assad, and later Bashar Assad, Armenians held to the right to teach their language in their schools, and to hold Mass in their churches. “Armenians in Syria are full citizens who enjoy equal rights,” she said. “They never faced any problems on the grounds of religious discrimination in Syria.”

Arissian also noted that Syria and Armenia enjoy close relations, although she acknowledged that cozy relations between Turkey and Syria over the last decade affected the media’s handling of topics relating to Armenians.

Armenians are keeping their options open, including the idea of moving to Armenia. “It is not a secret that a considerable number of Syrian-Armenians have applied for Armenian citizenship. But this doesn’t mean that they are ready or willing to immediately go to Armenia. Despite the escalation of the situation, Armenians in Syria are standing with the state, with their country Syria,” said Arissian.

Armenian Weekly