Upheaval and Uncertainty

Syria, sectarian conflict and the regional rivalry redefining the future of the Middle East

From the balcony of his family’s modest apartment in Aleppo, confined to a wheelchair, Manuel Tanigian contemplates the desolation of the empty streets of Nor Kyugh, the heart of the Armenian community in Syria. Caught in the crossfire between government forces on one side and opposition rebels on the other, Nor Kyugh is a disaster zone where the rubble of demolished cafes and shops lies amid the ruins of derelict buildings stretching into the distance. On those same streets, the stocky fifteen-year-old boy would often play outside with his friends until the day a mortar shell plummeted down from the sky above, ripping open his left leg. 

Although physically able to venture outside in his wheelchair, Tanigian prefers to stay mostly indoors, he says, as his family can’t afford a prosthetic leg to hide his wound. Struggling to adjust to life without his limb, he is mourning a bright future and friendships that now belong to his past. “I lost many of my friends,” he says, bravely trying to contain his emotions in front of a stranger. His anguish is reflected in his listless eyes, still surveying the bleak scene outside.

The portrait of Aleppo today—and all throughout this ancient Middle Eastern nation—bears no resemblance to the future so many peaceful protesters had hoped for when they called for change and democracy on its streets in 2011. Five years of fighting has since fuelled a widespread sense of despair. Mortar attacks and barrel bombs have destroyed their homes and workplaces, suffocating their livelihoods, while chronic water, electricity and food shortages compounded their misery. Very little of the country’s pre-war society remains. 

For more than thirty-five thousand Syrians of Armenian descent—less than half of the Armenian population prior to the war—it feels as though history is repeating itself as the conflict has recreated the suffering of their ancestors a century ago. The remnants of their communities in Aleppo, Damascus, Kessab and Kamishli are haunted by the echoes of the past—forced exile and malnutrition, destitution and desperation—as they struggle to salvage their shattered lives. The scars of war will endure long after the conflict is resolved.

“Life in Aleppo was unbearable,” said the father of a newly settled Armenian family in Montreal, Canada. “We were always worrying about the security of our children and struggled to make a living to provide for them.”

A large part of the Armenian community, however, is determined to stay—vowing to endure despite a depressed economy and the continued threat of mortar attacks and escalating violence. In a testament to their remarkable spirit of strength and perseverance, Armenian cultural organizations, churches and schools have successfully carried on under such miserable conditions with drastically reduced staff and resources. “There will always be an Armenian community in Syria,” affirms AGBU Syria Chairman Nerses Nersoyan. 

Still, he notes, sporadic skirmishes and shelling have routinely forced many of those who remain to relocate from one neighborhood to the relative safety of another, and from one city to the next, resulting in increasingly visible demographic changes. Latakia, for example, has seen its Armenian population swell from 5000 to 7000 due to internal migration. 

 The complexion of the Armenian community in Syria—and that of the region as a whole—is already undergoing a profound reconfiguration. Lasting consequences are rippling outwards throughout much of the Middle East and beyond. 

A Flood of Humanity

The conflict in Syria has uprooted more than half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million people, unleashing the greatest movement of refugees since the Second World War. Within its borders, 7.6 million have been internally displaced, many of them multiple times. Another four million fled the country, seeking refuge mostly in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of others have risked perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe where they face the bitter reality of an uncertain future with limited employment opportunities.

According to UNICEF, an estimated 2.1 million children—Syria’s lost generation—have dropped out of school and the ongoing violence may yet cause 400,000 more to follow. Parents are increasingly pressuring young boys to take menial jobs to earn money for the family, while girls are having their education cut short so they can be married at an increasingly younger age thereby reducing the family burden. 

As difficult as it is to grasp the magnitude of Syria’s refugee crisis from afar, in the West it continues to be treated largely as an abstract political debate rather than a global humanitarian crisis. The response on the part of the international community has been marked by a lack of consistency and coordination. As Harvard Kennedy School of Government Professor Michael Ignatieff remarked in The New York Review of Books, “Americans may still feel the refugee crisis is none of their business, but Europeans increasingly feel otherwise—and so do the refugees. The human flight from Syria is a mass plebiscite on the failure of US and Western policy in the Levant.” 

The one notable exception is Germany, which set an example by taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees since 2011. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed, the crisis taught the world that “what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart. We have to face that now.”

Armenia has also provided sanctuary for some 16 thousand Syrian-Armenians, waiving their visa fees and working with AGBU in Yerevan to help them resettle in their historic homeland. Among several aid initiatives undertaken to date, AGBU Yerevan provided rent subsidies and covered the costs of tuition for students to pursue their education.

Reconfiguring the Middle East

Amidst the population shifts emanating from Syria, the landscape of the Middle East is being redefined by deep-seated sectarian divisions that are fuelling conflict between Shiites and Sunnis not only in Syria, but also Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. The emergence of ISIS in the wake of Iraq and Syria’s collapse into civil war has exacerbated an already destabilized region.

Conflict between states or non-state parties, however, is rarely confined to domestic actors but instead often exploited by external interests and ties. In the context of a wider regional rivalry, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are each manipulating sectarian divisions in pursuit of their own ambitions. As Middle East scholar and foreign policy advisor Vali Nasr noted in Foreign Policy, the escalation in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular has become “the most significant clash between regional rivals in decades,” adding that both states are “fanning the fires of sectarianism and playing politics in a zero-sum proxy war of religious fervor.”

If the current trajectory holds in the Middle East, until a new regional order emerges peace will prove elusive for years to come. The end result of this process of unraveling, political observers argue, is a gradual collapse of traditional forms of statehood. The map of the Middle East will be marked by increasing fragmentation of weaker states that could eventually cease to exist, leaving minorities in an even more precarious situation without a strong state to assure their continued survival in the region. 

Among the many minority groups in jeopardy, Armenians once again are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of dispossession and displacement a century after forced exile drove their ancestors from their homeland to the four corners of the world. Together with millions of other refugees in the Middle East, Europe, Armenia and North America facing an uncertain future, they hope one day to return to Syria, despite knowing that little of their former lives can be salvaged.

Originally published in the February 2016 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.