Syrian revolution and future of the Armenian community (by Filor Nigoghosian)
The purpose of this piece is to establish a general understanding of the situation in Syria and where the Syrian Armenian community fits into it. It is an urgent call to reexamine the dominant position of the Armenian community towards the Syrian crisis, and is written out of a genuine concern for the future of the Armenian community in Syria. I will provide a general background of the Syrian revolution and its main actors, an understanding of the Syrian Armenian community and its respective position towards the Syrian revolution, and a discussion of the primary concerns of the Armenian community.
The Syrian Revolution-Background and Actors
The uprising in Syria was triggered after a number of children from Deraa who, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall and were tortured by government security forces. Images and news of the tortures of children in Deraa spread across Syria, and coupled with economic grievances, corruption, and nepotism, the protests in Syria turned into a full-blown revolution for freedom and dignity.
Local Coordination Committees (http://www.lccsyria.org/) emerged as primary actors in organizing and planning protests and civil disobedience tactics in support of the revolution on the ground. Another key group both politically and for organizing regional protest activities is the Syrian Revolution General Commission, headed up by Suheir Atassi (http://www.srgcommission.org/). The Syrian National Council (http://www.syriancouncil.org/)is an umbrella organization that encompasses many opposition blocs and serves as a political body seeking to overthrow the Syrian regime and establish a civil democratic state. It is supported by the LCC’s, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish parties, and the Damascus Declaration signatories. The National Coordinating Committee (http://ncsyria.com/) is another Syrian political opposition body led by Haythem Manna. It holds a strong position against foreign intervention, sectarianism, and violence. The Free Syria Armyis the collectivename for army-defected militias that emerged in the summer of 2011 as well as civilians who have joined the popular armed struggle. They are not led by any central authority or bound together by a particular ideology, and are in fact quite diverse. There are other opposition groups within Syria, however the ones mentioned are the key actors.
While socially conservative Sunnis account for a huge number of participants in the revolution, Alawis, Christians, ethnic minorities, and seculars have also actively participated in all aspects of the revolution. Although they have not participated as collective communities, this has not stopped activists from participating in the revolution. It is important to dispel the notion that that minorities do not participate or that the opposition is monolithic.
Alawi and Christian activists have protested in across the country. Alawis such as Tawfiq Dunia, Nabras Fadel, and Sondos Sulaiman have been serving as members of the Syrian National Council along with dozens of Christians-most prominently George Sabra. Many Alawis and Christians have been imprisoned and tortured. Some Alawis, such as Khawla Dunia and Samar Yazbeck, have served as revolutionary writers. The prominent Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman, who has been leading rallies in Homs, has been received as a revolutionary hero by Syrian protesters.
In December, 2011, Father Paolo Dall’Ogli, a Jesuit priest who founded Mar Musa monastery, was expelled from Syria by the government for speaking against totalitarianism and for reconciliation in Syria. Revolutionists from all backgrounds hailed him as a hero. In the heart of protests in Hama, a city vilified by the regime as a hotbed for Islamic extremism, protesters raised a wooden cross with the words “Thank you Father Paolo” written on it. The expulsion of Father Paolo, along with the government’s new constitution maintaining the requirement that the President be a Muslim, reminded the Christian community that the government is not necessarily out to protect them.
Ethnic minority groups, specifically Assyrian Syriacs and Kurds, have also played a significant role in the revolution, both serving in the Syrian National Council as well as leading local coordinating committees, mainly in Qamishli and Hasake.
Securing a Future for Armenians in Syria
Armenians in Syria and in the Middle East in general tend to live in isolated communities, detached from social and political life. They overwhelmingly perceive themselves as temporary guests in the country, as opposed to citizens who contract rights and obligations. This mentality, which is largely to blame on the leadership of the community, shapes their perceptions of the political realities of the day, and compels them to supports stable dictatorships in which they can maintain these isolated and segregated communities. This model for the Syrian Armenian community, however, is a faulty one. It fails to conceive of Armenians as an integral part of the fabric of Syria, while also failing to secure the future of the community in the long term.
Approximately 60,000-80,000 Armenians currently live in Syria. They are mainly centered in Aleppo, but also have large numbers in Damascus, Latakkia, Kessab, Der Zor, Qamishli, Raqqa, and other areas. They maintain institutions such as schools, however under certain limitations. Schools for example, are not allowed to teach Armenian history. They are allowed to teach the Armenian language a certain number of periods a week, but only because Armenians are recognized as a religious community and not an ethnic community, thus the language is allowed only on the basis of it being the liturgical language of the Armenian Church. Armenian political parties are also prohibited in Syria. Though Armenians have lived in relative stability under the Assad dynasty for the past few decades, they have also been emigrating from Syria in increasing numbers, which is part of a general trend of Christian emigration. This emigration results from many things, but namely economic problems, restrictions on freedom, and lack of opportunity.
Since the political upheaval in Syria began, Armenian media outlets and analysts began proposing unrealistic and impractical solutions for the Syrian Armenian community. Many proposed “exit plans” and mass transfers of 60,000 Syrian Armenians to Armenia and Artsakh. These proposals ignore Armenia’s inability to accommodate Armenian migrants, as demonstrated in the conditions of the roughly 800-900 Iraqi Armenians who sought refuge in Armenia after the Iraq War began.
Others, including Armenian parties and interest groups, have pushed for Armenians to maintain neutrality towards the Syrian crisis. Many Armenians however, aside from the official positions of neutrality, are in support of the government. They maintain this position because they prefer stability, fear change, and are not fully conscious of the reality outside of the bubble they have placed themselves in. They justify their position by accepting popular myths about the Syrian opposition, spreading elaborate conspiracy theories, and dehumanizing those who are being killed by the government. Though there are a number of Armenians who are against the Syrian regime, few have publicly spoken against the government or in support of the revolution. Reasons for this include community pressures, threatening and bullying of those who dissent from the dominant opinion, and fears of being labeled as traitors or turned in.
Participation in political and social processes, whether pro-government or pro-revolution, is essential to securing the future of the Armenian community. This is a period of uncertainty for the Syrian Armenian community, and the key is to realize and eliminate the risks that come with exclusion from or indifference to the processes taking place. Armenians as a community cannot perceive their fate relative directly to the fate of the Syrian regime, nor to the fate of the Syrian opposition. In other words, they cannot put all their eggs in one basket. Idealistically, a strong political strategy for Armenians would be to participate in both sides of this conflict, thus integrating themselves into the processes and making demands in order to ensure that the interests of the Armenian community are taken into consideration. Other minority groups have already adopted this strategy, most notably Kurds and Assyrians. Their participation in the revolution, for example, has succeeded in forcing the opposition to address their demands as ethnic minorities, and specific clauses in the constitution of the oppositionist Syrian National Council are dedicated to them that guarantee their national rights as Assyrians and Kurds.
Another example to consider is that of the Lebanese Armenian community. Uncertainty and continuous political change and upheaval are also issues the Lebanese Armenians have had to face for decades. Politically, they are divided between the two main camps in Lebanon, 8 March and 14 March. Those belonging to the Tashnaq Party are in the 8 March camp along with the Shia Islamist Hezballah and secular Christian Free Patriotic Movement, while those belonging to the Ramgavar Party and the Hnchaq Party are in the 14 March camp with the secular but predominately Sunni Future Party, along with rightist Maronite Lebanese Forces and Phalangists. Thus regardless of which camp is in control of the government, Armenians are able to maintain participation and secure interests. This arrangement provides a safety net for Armenians should there be political upheaval, and additionally the Armenian parties in different camps are in communication with each other at all times. Whatever will become of this conflict, political strategies to protect the Armenian community’s interests must be considered. A largely apolitical Syrian Armenian community can be transformed into one which is actively engaged in political life in Syria and one that is conscious of their political, religious, and ethnic rights.
While the Armenians of Aleppo today have little room to move and are under a microscope, Armenians in other parts of Syria as well as the Diaspora can actively engage in the processes that will shape Syria’s future. There are options participation in local coordinating groups in Damascus, Raqqa, Der Zor, and Qamishli, and possibilities to attend opposition conferences in Europe and the Middle East. The importance of actively participating cannot be stressed enough. Armenians must be visible and participate in all processes and create a balance to avoid being perceived as a monolithic community that is clinging to the regime. Many Armenians are already beginning to question the positions they have held for the past year. Some are becoming more active in the processes taking place in Syria today. However it is minimal and serious and fast changes must occur to increase the visibility of Armenians. There is no rationale as to why every single group in Syrian society is represented in the Syrian National Council-Sunnis, Alawis, Christians, Druze, Assyrians/Syriacs, Kurds, Circassians-but Armenians are completely unrepresented and absent from the process.
Principles/Morality in Syria
Resistance against authoritarianism and injustice in the Arab world is an expression of the most basic forms of moral and religious principles. The Syrian government has robbed its citizens of their most basic human rights and dignities. Thousands of Syrians have been killed, imprisoned, and turned into refugees by the hands of the Syrian regime.
The most basic principles derived from religion-justice, righteousness, humanity, peace-compel us to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, defend the cause of the weak, and maintain the rights of the oppressed and destitute. Through these principles we must condemn oppression, injustice, violence, and authoritarianism.
On Friday, February 10, 2012 two suicide bombs went off in security compounds in Aleppo, killing 28 people, mainly from the army and security forces. One of those killed happened to be an Armenian who was serving the army, Viken Hairabedian. The Armenian community, both in Syria and across the world, was overtaken by mourning, sadness, and anger. The people of Aleppo in general were stunned and dismayed at what had occurred, and everyone began to pray incessantly for their country and what had become of it.
One week prior to the Aleppo bombings, the Syrian government committed a massacre in Homs, and hundreds of innocent people were killed indiscriminately. This was not mentioned in even one prominent Armenian media outlet, and the majority of Armenians were either ignorant to the fact that it occurred, or indifferent towards it. This response was also consistent with the indifference and apathy towards what has happened in Syria generally since the uprising began in March of 2011.
On November 16, 2011, Jimmy Shahinian, an Armenian activist from Raqqa, was detained by Syrian security forces, imprisoned, and tortured until his release on December 19, 2011. The only Armenian media outlet that mentioned this was “Armenia Airlines News”. Very few Armenians expressed any concern over his situation, and Armenian parties and organizations were shamefully silent.
Our community has largely taken a morally deprived position of indifference towards the Syrian governments’ crimes against its own citizens. When such outrage and sadness is exerted over the lives of 28 people in Aleppo, perhaps because 1 happened to be an Armenian, while there is complete silence or even justification for the killings of thousands of other Syrians on a daily basis since the uprising began, it is an indicator of moral degeneration within our community.
Islamists and Extremism
Over the past few decades, Islamist movements across the region have grown and manifested themselves in various ways. Some have resorted to violent rebellion, others have targeted religious minorities, and some have expressed themselves in peaceful manners. Many Armenians, and Syrians in general, who fear the fall of Bashar Assad’s regime are largely concerned with the possibility of Islamist extremists taking over Syria. They prefer a stable dictatorship over a theocracy or a state of lawlessness. Their fears are not unfounded if we consider the growth of anti-Christian violence across the region, primarily in Iraq and Egypt. The condition of Iraqi Christians deteriorated primarily because of the absence of security after the war which left an opening for extremists, many foreign, to escalate attacks targeting Christians. Egypt’s situation differs in that attacks against Coptic Christians have occurred for decades, however it is the visibility of the plight of Egyptian Christians which has increased since the Egyptian Revolution.
It is important to touch upon the conditions in Arab countries that have fostered Islamist extremism and violence. When groups, in this case Islamic groups, are denied access to political institutions and repressed by the state, it encourages a dynamic of isolation, radicalization, and militancy. In seeking to combat Islamist groups, authoritarian governments have only further radicalized them.
The discourse within Armenian and other minority communities has wrongly labeled Islamists, or even Muslims, as a monolithic group, some even conflating the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood with Al Qaeda. The vast diversity within Islamist movements must be recognized and we must correctly place these groups within the proper framework of the Syrian opposition. Opportunistic Salafi preachers, mainly outside of Syria, have declared their support to overthrow Bashar Assad. One of the most prominent is Adnan Arour, a Salafi cleric based in Saudi Arabia, who is known for spreading hate, sectarianism, and inciting violence. Such clerics that have attempted to insert themselves into the Syrian revolution have provoked the fear of much of Alawi minority. These Salafi ideologies, however, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, are largely irrelevant to the protesters inside Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has been exiled from Syria and its organization and influence on the ground is trivial. The Muslim Brotherhoods participation is limited to membership in the Syrian National Council, in which it is confined to a platform calling for a civil state with no mention of Islam.
Islam, however, does play an increasingly spiritual role for many of the socially conservative Sunni protesters on the ground and in the besieged cities. Though their goal is not an Islamic state, and they are not fighting for Islam, many are definitely inspired by it and use their faith to help them get by in such difficult conditions. While the majority of Sunnis in the opposition can be said to be devout, there are many among them who are secular, drink alcohol, and do not pray.
Many Armenian supporters of the Syrian government delegitimize the revolutionaries by making reference to their relationship to Turkey. The Syrian National Council was formed in exile in Istanbul (for purposes of proximity) in the fall of 2011. It has support from the US, European Countries, and Gulf States, and it receives external funding. The SNC has many shortcomings, primarily in its reliance on external actors, and its lack of cooperation with those on the ground. Recently, the SNC has shifted towards supporting and creating a political authority to the armed opposition on the ground, as well as reaching out and leaving an open door for collaboration with the Syrian regime’s traditional allies, especially Hezballah.
It is relevant to discuss is the Syrian government’s relationships with mainly with Turkey, the US, and Israel. Syria and Turkey have historically tense relations over 3 key issues-territorial disputes over the Hatay province, water disputes, and Syria’s sheltering of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Syria and Turkey almost went to war over the last issue, specifically over Syria harboring PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. However in 1998, Hafez Assad deported Öcalan from Syria, and tensions eased between Syria and Turkey. They remained relatively static until 2004, where a new era of friendly relations was ushered in between the two states. From 2004 until the Syrian uprising, relations improved in every area under the leadership of Bashar Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bashar Assad’s visit to Turkey in early 2004 was the first time a Syrian President has visited Turkey since Syria’s independence. Syria and Turkey established a free trade agreement that came into force in 2007, and in 2009 they mutually lifted visa requirements. Turkish goods flooded the Syrian markets and Syrian tourism in Turkey surged. Joint military exercises between the countries were also conducted in 2009.
Turkey quickly jumped on board the wave of Arab revolution and acted as if it were the eternal defender of human rights and democracy. Turkey eventually came to denounce the Syrian government, though it initially looked towards the uprising in Syria with ambivalence. Turkey may have overestimated its ability to persuade Assad to stop the crackdown, and today Turkey’s relationship with Assad has collapsed.
As far as US and Israeli interests are concerned, it is notable that Syrian governments relations with the US increased following the September 11th attacked, with shared intelligence and rendition operations and increased cooperation. Additionally, while Syria and Israel have historically tense relations, the Syrian regime has not exerted even a fraction of its military might towards liberating the Golan Heights as it has exerted against its own citizens. The Syrian regime has not hesitated to cooperation with Turkey, the US, or even Israel when it was convenient for its interests at any given time.
Regarding calls for foreign intervention, which have been made out of desperation and increased brutality on behalf of the regime, Syrian protestors on the ground increasingly understand that foreign states like Turkey or the US do not genuinely care about the interests of the Syrian people, but are protecting their own political interests.
Security is perhaps the most legitimate and important concern that all Syrians have. While many Syrians in the besieged cities have already been completely deprived of their security for months, the security collapse is spreading across the country. Aleppo today is filled with checkpoints, increased criminal acts and kidnappings, gunfights in the streets, and mainly the instilment of fear. There is an increasing concern about the security vacuum that can be left following the collapse of the regime. It is important to note that in deals that have been offered to the Syrian regime and rejected, maintaining institutions while transferring power was a key point. However as it seems that the Syrian regime is intent on keeping power, and as the protests spread across the country while the calls to armed resistance grow stronger, it is inevitable that along this track we will continue to see institutional decay, the collapse of the military, and the crumbling of infrastructure.
The militarization of the opposition and call to arms has concerned many, as it can aggravate the situation and increase bloodshed. We must understand that it is a tough sell to remain peaceful for those in the besieged cities who have faced increasingly brutality and are desperate to protect themselves. Political opposition bodies, in an attempt to respond to the demands of those in the besieged cities, have created military bureaus to cooperate with and support the Free Syria Army. The importance of this lies in the understanding that militarization must be controlled and contained by a political body, which will help maintain a consistent tactical strategy and avoid sectarian or revenge attacks. Aside from this, we should keep in mind that there are many voices in the opposition that are against militarization, and the recent militarization calls should not take away from the fact that non violent protests are continuing, with the Local Coordination Committees reporting 619 demonstrations from this Friday, March 3.
As institutions continue to collapse, special attention should be put on border control. There are opportunistic groups all over the region that will attempt to inject themselves into the conflict and take advantage of Syria’s situation. For this reason, there should be a neutral force to help with stability, the most practical being the deployment of United Nations peacekeeping forces.
The situation could very possibly descend into a long civil war, many are unable to understand that this is a possibility. Those who falsely hope that by clinging to the regime this will all disappear are only hurting themselves. Whether one is with the regime, neutral, or with the opposition, people must begin to understand that things will not go back to the way they were one year ago. No matter how loud one screams for Bashar, it does not change the fact that Bashar cannot protect them nor does he have an interest in protecting them.
On February 25, 1954, the Syrian President at the time, Adib Shishlaky, made a noble decision. Shishlaky was also an oppressive ruler, however when an insurgency rose up against him, he understood that maintaining power was not worth spilling the blood of his people and dragging them into a civil war, so he resigned. For the sake of Syria and the security of all Syrians, let us hope that Bashar Assad will take the same step.
Filor Nigoghosian is pursuing her undergraduate degree in International Relations and History at the Northeastern Illinois University. She is a Human Rights activist and an active member of Chicago’s Armenian Community.