Crédit Harout Arabian (Flickr).

Armenia reaffirms its support for Assad and Putin

Translated by Ben Littledyke and Mathieu Scott

On October 8th, two Russian transport planes dispatched from Armenia arrived at the Russian military base of Hmeimin, in Latakia, Syria, a region controlled by government forces. The planes carried 40 tonnes of humanitarian aid provided by the Armenian government for the Armenian population in Latakia, Kessab, Tartus, Damascus, and, in particular, Aleppo. What are the stakes of this gesture?

The city of Aleppo – once the economic and cultural heart of Syria – has been transformed into a horrendous battleground. The regular Syrian army, supported by Russia and the Iranian militia, are locked in conflict with the union of military rebel groups calling itself the Free Syrian Army, and a loose alliance of Islamist groups, including al-Nusra and ISIS. Since hostilities resumed in July of 2016, government-controlled areas of the city with large Armenian populations have sustained heavy bombardments from rebel militants.

Syrian Armenians

Descendants of those who survived the genocide carried out against Armenians by the Ottoman Empire’s Young Turk government in 1915, Syrian Armenians have always been an active and well-integrated community in the Middle Eastern country. Their estimated population before the war was around 100,000, and they have always benefited from the right to practice their cult and maintain their traditions. One example is the establishment of Armenian schools in Damascus and Aleppo, the two most common destinations for the Armenian diaspora.  The Armenian population has always maintained good relations with the Alawites, the Shi’ite minority to which the al-Assad clan belongs.

Despite its small size and numerous economic problems, Armenia has so far accepted around 20,000 refugees, the majority of whom are Armenians from Syria and Iraq. For those of Armenian descent, the process of attaining Armenian citizenship is simpler and faster due to their ethnic heritage and common language. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), local NGOs and institutions have established many hospitality systems to facilitate the integration of Armenian refugees.

Armenian Support for Russia and Damascus

Nonetheless, the support from Yerevan for the Syrian Armenians is not solely motivated by humanitarian sentiment. Armenia is one of Russia’s closest diplomatic allies in foreign policy, including Syria. The Caucasian nation hosts two Russian military bases: one in Gyumri in the north of the country, and one in Yerevan. Armenia is one of the only countries in the world to have recognized the fiercely contested Crimea referendum in March of 2014, and it is also a member of two international organisation under Russian influence: the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CTSO) since 1992, and, since January of 2015, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). This solid alliance allows Russia to maintain a political and military presence in south Caucasia, in order to counter Western influence in Georgia, and to maintain territorial continuity with Iran, another Russian ally in Syria.

Russia is not the only country to benefit from Armenia’s support. As mentioned already, Yerevan has always enjoyed good relations with Syria under the al-Assad regime. There has been an increased number of reciprocal visits and bilateral agreements. This relationship culminated in June of 2009 with Bachar al-Assad’s official visit to Armenia. Levon Tor-Petrossyan, the first President of Armenia, was born in Aleppo. He visited Syria in April of 1992, just four months after the country declared independence.

Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, Armenia has renewed its support for the Syrian government during a visit by Foreign Affairs Minister Edouard Nalbandyan. In return, Bachar al-Assad and the Syrian government officially recognized in January of 2014 the Armenian genocide of 1915, in a decision partially motivated by political calculation. In his speech, Bachar al-Assad drew comparisons between the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the civil war in Syria, much to the irritation of the Turkish government. He also flattered the consciousnesses of the influential Armenian diaspora throughout the world, maintaining the support of the Armenian population in Syria and reinforcing links with Yerevan.

The Armenian government, then, seeks to send a strong message, given Russia’s significant interests in Syria, and Armenia’s desire to protect its people who remained in Syria. By sending aid, Armenia has once again displayed its support for Bachar al-Assad’s regime, as well as for Russia’s involvement in Syria.

Photo credit: Harout Arabian (Flickr)

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