War is never good for civilians. The Syrian civil war is no exception for the approximately 100,000 Syrian-Armenians (Syria-Hay) living predominantly in and around Aleppo. As mentioned earlier, Armenians have generally sided with the government, which has made the FSA less than cordial to them. But, part of the deal with siding with the government was that the government would keep them safe. With the heavy artillery falling into the urban environment of Aleppo, all bets are off.
For the Syria-Hay, what was an easy choice to stay has become a hard challenge of figuring out how to get out. In a dirty war zone, remaining neutral simply means you have no allies. Whether the Syria-Hay community wants to leave might be moot as logistically it’s next to impossible to mobilize such a large population. Before the recent onslaught on Aleppo, many Armenians were calling for “media caution” to not upset either fighting force to continue the fragile security of the Syria-Hay community as long as possible. As of two weeks ago, the Syrian government was still telling the Syria-Hay community to stay home.
A big issue has been how should Armenia help. Syria-Hay have been petitioning the government for help, specifically asking for lower air fares for Syrians. A Syrian friend told me that around the beginning of August, plane tickets from Aleppo to Yerevan (~650 mi) were going for $600 dollars. In comparison, my one-way ticket from Yerevan to San Francisco (~9000 mi) was $700. Armavia, the primary carrier of Armenia and only carrier flying between Aleppo and Armenia, was demanding the Armenian government subsidize each ticket by $250. As of the end of July, calls of Armavia’s price-gouging were frequent, including criticism with how the company would only sell round-trip tickets between Aleppo and Yerevan. Recently, two Armenian charities paid Armavia $43,000 to bring over 149 Syrian children.
Fortunately for the government and the Syrians, the Armenian General Benevolence Union stepped in with a $1 million humanitarian assistance emergency fund for Syria-Hay. The Hayastan All-Armenian Fund has also contributed by opening banking accounts to accept donations.
Worsening communication between Armenia and Syria, the Syrian consul to Armenia defected at the end of July. He openly voiced his support for the opposition, adding yet another complication between the countries. As of today, there have only been nine diplomatic defections.
Straining relations further, the Armenian government was silent during a recent UN General Assembly Resolution that reprimanded Syria. While the Resolution facially calls for a neutral immediate and visible end to violence in Syria, its drafting is primarily focused against the Syrian government rather than against the FSA. Armenia has generally had favorable relations with Syria, especially with the significant leeway Bashir has given Armenians and other Christians. But, when it’s 133 in favor and 12 against, with half of the ‘against’ category full of the least democratic states in the world, it’s hard to vote no even if you want to. At least one Armenian talking head was in favor of Armenia’s tactical silence calling it “justified.”
Shortly after the no-vote, Armenia attended a conference on the Syria situation held in Tehran. Take a guess who didn’t show up. If you said Western Europe, the US, and Turkey, congratulations, you win a cookie. The conference called for peace, ending military assistance to armed groups and non-intervention and was largely ignored in the west.
In the first half of the year, 3,248 Syria-Hay applied for Armenian citizenship. The Armenian Consulate in Aleppo has had to move for safety reasons, limiting their capacity. In part because of that, the Foreign Ministry stopped accepting passport applications for Armenian citizenship, but Syria-Hay can still receive free entrance visas and passports at the border, making this one limitation not too restrictive.
The Ministry of Diaspora has been working on providing services to the Syria-Hay, albeit not necessarily the most useful services. The Ministry has a Syria-Hay working group, but it sounds like the group is composed of Armenians who lived in Syria and returned a while ago. While the Ministry may be criticized for not engaging in any long-term planning, teaching the Syria-Hay Eastern Armenian rather than their native Western Armenian doesn’t seem like the highest priority long-term issue. Another program involved bringing Damascan Syria-Hay children to Armenia to relax for two weeks, get a tour of Yerevan, and return to Syria tomorrow. Syria-Hay with Syrian driver’s licenses won’t have to take a driving test before they can drive in Armenia, but of course that assumes that they can get a car here (the very rough data puts car ownership here at one-fifth that of the United States).
Surprisingly, the Ministry’s actions have earned it the trust of some in the Syria-Hay community where they are very willing to attack Armenian reporters who ignorantly talk about their situation while defending the Ministry for its actions. Another reporter also bashes Armenian reporters for not willing to go to the situation but also bashes everyone else, including the Ministry for its indifference, Armavia for its price-gouging and local politicians.
Unfortunately, time is getting short. Instead of focusing on media caution, “No Armenian Casualties” is newsworthy as of yesterday. Claims for asylum are also on the rise. With telephone and internet connections cut and shots in the streets, it’s unclear how reliable any information is right now, but it’s clear the situation is becoming more and more grim.