The Armenian Genocide memorial in Syria’s Deir El Zor province, long a pilgrimage site for descendants of survivors, is hardly the only casualty of the brutal conflict raging across the country today, but it is a symbolic one. It was bombarded during a battle between the army and its armed opponents in November 2012, but still stands as a testament to another struggle nearly a century ago.
The Armenians have a long history in Syria, dating back as far as the 11th century. Those fleeing the Seljuk invasion of Armenia resettled in northern Syria, establishing quarters in Antioch, Aleppo and Aintab. The decline of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia brought a new population influx in the early 14th century to the northern city of Aleppo. In the decades that followed, these Armenians would found their owns schools, churches and prelacy.
The population was destined to rise and fall over the centuries along with the opportunities or turmoil that Syria presented. But it was the survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide—those who witnessed neighbors and relatives slaughtered in their villages or perish on death marches and somehow emerged alive from their unspeakable journey—who established the modern community.
The eastern Syrian region of Deir El Zor would be the final stop for hundreds of thousands of Armenians who met their deaths in its deserts. Many survivors would see Syria as merely a transit point, and they would continue on to Lebanon, Egypt or the West if they were able.
But thousands of others stayed, having found shelter among the hospitable Arab population and opportunity in its cities and towns. Armenians settled mainly in Aleppo, the commercial hub of the country, but also in the capital Damascus, and the northern provinces of Hasakeh, Raqqa and Latakia.
When the Armenians arrived to Syria as refugees, the French and the British controlled the region militarily and politically. Syria would later fall under the French mandate, which was recognized by the League of Nations in 1923 and would last for two decades. The Armenians arrived at a difficult time of disease and famine in the wake of World War One. The impoverished refugees were sometimes blamed for taking jobs, spreading disease or crime.
Arab nationalists originally perceived Armenians as collaborators with the French, who provided the Armenians humanitarian assistance and recruited them to serve in the public administration and security apparatus. Armenians were offered Syrian citizenship in 1924, granting them a permanent status in their host country and a chance to integrate. When the French allowed for elections following a nationalist strike in 1936, Arab nationalists began to regard the Armenians as a vital voting bloc. The community mobilized to help bring the Arab nationalists to power in 1936, and these relations were deepened when France allowed Turkey to take control of Alexandretta, home to many Armenians.
While Armenians became increasingly integrated in Syria, they traditionally relied on self-help through political parties, the church and community organizations like the Armenian General Benevolent Union to rebuild their lives.
The community flourished in the decades that followed. Schools were built, churches inaugurated and cultural activities put in motion. A country that was the final resting place for hundreds of thousands of genocide victims became the place where they would start anew, creating livelihoods, absorbing new traditions and introducing their own culture to the local society. In Aleppo alone, nine schools served the local community—the heartbeat of the Syrian Armenian society and a key center of learning and culture for the entire Middle East Diaspora. A new generation would grow up in Syria with a love for their historic homeland and their adopted country alike.
Armenians, though a religious and ethnic minority, enjoyed a near-steady representation in the Syrian parliament since their mass exodus from Ottoman Turkey. Throughout the diverse chapters of the Syrian history, Armenian participation in public life demonstrated the diversity and tolerance of a mosaic society comprised of a host of ethnicities and religious sects.
Like their fellow Syrians, more recently Armenians witnessed the influx of refugees and stories of strife following the 2003 invasion of neighboring Iraq. When the Arab Spring revolts began sweeping the region in 2011, many viewed the rhetoric about democratic reform with distrust, fearful that authoritarian regimes would give way to the chaos and bloodshed that had befallen Iraq. The community had enjoyed the hospitality of the Syrian people and its various governments for decades, and they were concerned about the implications of the unprecedented unrest.
Syria did not occur in a vacuum—the whole region was teeming with resentment for its authoritarian governments, and Damascus was only the latest regime to feel the heat. For the past two years, protests have given way to an all-out insurgency as the government and opposition refused to yield.
Armenians were caught in the middle as the protests spread like wildfire, the military responded with an iron fist and the revolt steadily militarized. In the two years that followed, life would change dramatically for all Syrians. Entire cities were leveled, over four million displaced and more than 80,000 killed, according to the United Nations. Perhaps the most worrying trend for Armenians was to watch the emergence of hardline Islamist fighters and sectarian trends among a once tolerant society. As the Assad regime dug in its heels, so did the opposition, putting Armenians in a dangerous position that echoed the Lebanese civil war.
Today the situation is dire. Armenians who remain in Syria struggle to make ends meet amid an economic crisis compounded by sanctions. The risk of kidnapping for ransom is high, and movement even within cities can be fraught with peril. Escape is no longer simple, with the Aleppo airport closed since January. While the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartus remain government strongholds, Aleppo has been locked in a deadly stalemate since last summer and the southern and eastern suburbs of Damascus are largely rebel-held. While many have adapted to a new way of life, sending children to school as shelling sounds in the distance, life is hardly normal. Thousands have left the country for safety elsewhere, but are living in purgatory, neither able to return nor willing to give up on their country.
Three generations ago, the Armenians of Anatolia witnessed death and destruction on an unparalleled scale. Today, the Syrian Armenians are again faced with brutal upheaval and devastation. Once more, an uncertain future. With the passing of the 98th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, many will be concerned not with the painful memories of the past, but with the critical question of the present. Whether in Syria, Lebanon, Armenia or elsewhere, they will need the help of the Diaspora to rebuild.