By Alison Tahmizian Meuse
Syrian Armenians may not have needed or desired a life changing revolt, but it was destined to come to them. Aleppo, the stronghold of the community in Syria, remained aloof from the upheaval plaguing the countryside long after it had swept up much of the country. Its business class, including a large Sunni elite, was unwilling to allow upheaval to rock the boat. But protests began being held each Friday in multiple districts of the city. The movement reached a fever pitch in May 2012 when riot police beat student activists at the Aleppo University in the presence of UN observers. Peaceful protests were giving way to armed struggle across the country, as conscripts defected and formed loosely affiliated rebel groups.
The fight came with vengeance to Aleppo when rebels launched a full-scale attack in July 2012. What began as a battle for Syria’s second largest city, settled into a deadly stalemate. The former commercial hub was divided roughly in half between rebel-held areas and army strongholds, with hotspots in between.
The Armenian neighborhoods have largely remained under army control, while the working-class Midan district sits dangerously close to the line of fire. The community elderly home in the northern rebel-held quarter of Bustan al-Basha has been evacuated and travel within the city restricted greatly.
The road to the airport also became fraught with peril, making every trip out of the country a gamble. On September 12 of last year, four Syrian Armenians were killed and others wounded when they were caught in the line of fire between rebels and the army on the drive home after a trip to Yerevan. One of the victims had just taken his wife and children to safety in Armenia and thought he was returning only to close up shop.
Aleppo is hardly the only affected part of the country.
The second largest Armenian community, population-wise, is in the northeast city of Qamishli, located in the largely Kurdish province of Hasakeh. The province has seen a complex string of battles between pro-regime Kurdish militias and Islamist rebels, between rebels and the army, and between opposition Kurds and the regime forces, putting its cities and towns in a state of uncertainty.
The Christian village of Yacoubiyeh in the largely opposition-held northwest province of Idlib was overtaken by rebels in late January. Armenians – fearing retribution – left with the retreating army troops, and went on to Latakia or Aleppo. The churches were left with their crosses untouched but valuables looted.
In response, the newly-formed Syrian Armenian Relief and Rebuilding Committee—comprised of representatives from all of Syria’s Armenian organizations and churches—worked to secure housing and aid for the families that fled.
The unified relief committee has formed local branches in Aleppo, Qamishli, Damascus and Latakia. AGBU is involved in all, but is also carrying out its own critical relief work. .
“The general committee was late to be formed and the AGBU, especially in Aleppo and Damascus, didn’t want to wait. We sensed the urgency to start acting. AGBU itself formed committees in these locations to carry out relief efforts in June 2012,” said AGBU Central Board member Vasken Yacoubian, from Damascus.
A key help for those in Syria is the distribution of boxes with essential foods, medications and cleaning supplies, intended to last for a month. Many Armenians who have remained in the war-torn country are those with limited savings, who once worked by the day. With business in Aleppo and elsewhere ground to a halt, AGBU is working to help those who have lost their jobs.
The organization’s relief efforts also extend to those who have taken refuge outside of Syria—including in Lebanon and Armenia—but the priority goes to those in the war-torn country.
A growing number of Armenians, like many Syrians, have resettled within the country—with the coastal cities of Latakia, Tartus and the historic Armenian town of Kassab becoming critical safe havens. Others remain behind in rebel-controlled territory, unwilling to part from their homes.
Armenians have a strong presence in Damascus, where the sound of warplanes bombing the suburbs can be heard throughout the day and the threat of rebel mortar fire makes few areas safe. Suicide bombings have also rocked the capital, cementing fears of an Iraq-scenario that could last into the next decade.
Today, hostilities are focused in Homs province, as the rebels and regime are locked in a battle for the key smuggling route from Lebanon, and the critical axis stretching from Damascus to the coastal provinces.
While lives are in danger, decades and even centuries-old religious structures have already fallen prey to the hostilities. Aleppo’s UNESCO-listed souk was ravaged by flames during clashes in September 2012, while the minaret of the ancient Umayyad Mosque was completely destroyed amid fighting on April 24. In a conflict where civil war leads to daily death tolls of at least 100 per day, Syrians from all sides are also mourning the destruction of their heritage.
Another worrying trend is the increasing number of kidnappings—a reliable business in the midst of skyrocketing inflation and unemployment. Armenians are prime targets “because they have money, and they will pay,” one local resident said. But many worry that sectarianism is also becoming a driving factor, or handy excuse, and that exorbitant payments no longer guarantee release.
Confidence in the army and its ability to protect main cities, highways and the Armenian neighborhoods has given way to hasty plans for departure – often thought (or hoped) to be temporary stays. Those who could, traveled to Armenia or neighboring Lebanon months ago. Often, a male member of the family would stay behind to guard the home and business, in the hope of keeping their life’s investment intact.
Revolution turned civil war
Few Syrians could have expected that calls for reform in March 2011 would lead to an all-out war. Armenians, like the population as a whole, have since been caught in the crossfire.
Even the Armenian position of neutrality is a highly controversial stance in a country dangerously divided between loyalists and opponents of the embattled regime. Most Syrians continue to remain publically silent—unwilling to expose themselves to repercussions from either side and anxiously hoping a deal can be reached.
The war in Syria is often portrayed as a sectarian clash, but it is just as much an urban-rural conflict, with the poor from the countryside willing to put their lives on the line and wealthy families unwilling to sacrifice stability for freedom. The capital Damascus is more split on socio-economic lines than sectarian ones.
But as the revolt has dragged on past the two-year mark and left tens of thousands killed and countless others maimed, sectarian strife has become an undeniable fact.
The most loyal supporters of President Bashar al-Assad are the Alawites—a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam, who fear retribution should the government fall.
Kurds—the largest minority group—have shifted positions over the course of the revolt. Last summer, regime troops pulled out of Kurdish northern areas in an apparent exchange for their neutrality. Kurds also struck bargains with the rebels, including a truce with Islamists in the north in February and a more recent alliance with rebels in Aleppo, in hopes of preserving their communities.
Christians have largely sided with the government, fearful of an Islamist takeover, or remained on the sidelines.
Sunni Muslims, a historically more educated and prosperous class than the Alawites, make up the vast majority of Syria’s population, and its rebellion.
While fears often center on the minority of foreign jihadists who have joined the fight, the larger concern for veteran observers is that the local population is being radicalized by the ideology of the hardliners.
The Alawites have held power for the past four decades under the rule of President Hafez al-Assad and his son and successor Bashar. While the secular Baathist government included staunch Sunni supporters, many other were resentful of the nepotism of the ruling regime. While peace often prevailed, it was due to the threat of Assad’s iron fist; the uprising of the Muslim Brotherhood was smashed in 1982 in Hama at the cost of over 10,000 lives.
Unlike the Hama revolt, the 2011 revolution began as a popular and largely secular movement. But as the revolt has become an all-out war, with the regime employing missiles and warplanes nationwide and the rebels striking regime strongholds with car bombs, sectarian divisions are on the rise, exacerbated by a proxy battle between Sunni Gulf Arab states and Turkey backing the rebels, and the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah and Iran supporting the regime.
Russia, unwilling to lose its last outpost on the Mediterranean, has thrown its weight behind Assad. The West, exhausted from foreign intervention and economic crisis, has been wary of getting involved.
Life goes on
At a time when nothing is certain, many Armenians are doing their best to carry on in limbo outside the country or under fire at home.
Some Aleppo Armenian schools have been damaged in the fighting and others were closed, but education is continuing. The AGBU School continues to operate in the government-held Aziziyeh district.
Before hostilities broke out in Aleppo, the school had about 1,300 students. Only 200 children showed up for the first week of classes last fall, though this number has fluctuated according to the safety or dangers in the area. Now there are around 600 students.
While some 30,000 Armenians continue to call Aleppo home, more and more are trying to leave. “Just yesterday a bus with 40 people arrived to Armenia,” Yacoubian said in mid-March. The airport has been closed since January 1 due to ongoing battles around its perimeter.
Syria, once “the safest place in the world” according to many, is today the most dangerous Armenian Diaspora center. The community not only suffers from the obvious dangers of an all-out war, but a lack of funds to adequately provide for families in need. The aid is also needed outside Syria, with families in Lebanon and Armenia watching their life savings dry up—spent on expensive groceries and rent.
“For the majority of the people in Armenia, the money is dwindling down. I heard some really sad stories that families here who still have relatives in Aleppo are calling their relatives and asking to give their son $100 in Yerevan,” said Yacoubian.
Faced with such shortages and few options, the AGBU is trying to determine where funding is needed most urgently—and more importantly, to make it stretch for an unforeseeable future.
Most of the aid distributed by AGBU goes toward rent payments. Other funds were allotted for education, to which the Armenian government has also contributed greatly by waiving all tuition fees for Syrian Armenian students in universities and schools. The AGBU is completely funding school tuition fees for Syrian Armenians in Lebanon, where the price of textbooks is roughly equivalent to the cost of an entire academic year in Syria.
“We are trying to prioritize where the available funds go, how to distribute, and make sure what we have goes to the most needy. We don’t see an end to the conflict,” said Yacoubian.
“We don’t want to be faced with a situation where we don’t have any more funds… To keep that balance and not be seen that we are not helping people is extremely delicate and tough.”
For Syrian Armenian community leaders, the best-case scenario is that both sides can agree to a deal and the fighting subsides. All agree such an outcome is a long way off.
“The end isn’t going to be anywhere near best-case scenario. We are going to face some really tough times,” Yacoubian said. “We are in the middle of a very dark tunnel. We don’t know which end is nearer, and when you reach that end what you are going to find.”