The ethnic Armenian village of Kesab in 2010. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
An attack by Syrian rebels on an ethnic Armenian town has raised questions about Turkey's role in supporting the opposition and prompted claims by many Armenians that the attack was orchestrated by the Turkish government as an attack on Armenians.
The town, Kesab, is in Syria's far northwestern corner, on the border with Turkey and on the Mediterranean coast. It has been Armenian for centuries, unlike most of the Armenian communities in Syria which were settled by refugees from the 1915 genocide in Turkey.
Last week, Syrian rebels attacked Kesab, "part of an offensive aimed at opening up a rebel link to the sea," Reuters reported. And Syria's government blamed Turkey: "Syrian authorities accused Turkey of helping the fighters launch their attack on Kasab from Turkish territory, saying Ankara's army 'provided cover for this terrorist attack' on the wooded and hilly border region."
And a number of Armenian sources took that accusation further, and said that it was a deliberate Turkish attack on Armenians. The Armenian website Mediamax posted an interview with Mudar Barakat, a pro-government Syria commentator, in which he said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arranged the attack as part of his campaign for Turkey's upcoming elections. "Erdogan is targeting Kassab’s symbolic importance as a peaceful Syrian cradle for the Armenian families who survived the massacres enforced by his Ottoman predecessors and it seems that this attack on Kassab is a reflection of Erdogan’s anger towards Armenia’s stand against his terrorism in Syria, and a reminder of the 1915 massacres and the historical Turkish animosity towards the Armenians."
The impending attack by the U.S. on Syria has dominated the world's attention for the last week or so. And the powers surrounding the Caucasus and Central Asia -- notably Russia, Turkey, and Iran -- have been among the most active in discussing Syria, with Russia and Iran backing the government of Bashar al-Assad and Turkey one of the strongest supporters of the rebels. In spite of, or perhaps as a result, of that, the countries in between have taken a cautious approach to the possibility of U.S. military involvement in Syria.
Befitting its strong attachment to the U.S., Georgia's foreign ministry made a statement that appeared to endorse the American position that Assad's government should be punished for the use of chemical weapons:
“Georgia welcomes and supports readiness of the international community to play more active role in resolving humanitarian crisis in Syria and to hold the regime that committed this crime accountable for violating the fundamental international humanitarian norm."
Georgia's position is largely a factor of its ties to Turkey and the U.S., Michael Cecire, a Washington-based analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus, told The Bug Pit:
The Georgian government is happy to defer to their partners in the West and in nearby Turkey to take the lead on the issue. When it comes to Syria, Tbilisi's primary geopolitical concerns would be to ensure that the consequences from an intervention did not lead to destabilization in the South Caucasus. The Assad regime's closeness to Hezbollah and Iran, which both operate in the Caucasus to varying extents, makes this at least a possibility -- particularly in light of Hezbollah's alleged role in an early 2012 disarmed bombing attempt in Tbilisi.
The exodus of Syria’s ethnic Armenian community to Armenia was seen, at least in part, as a temporary phenomenon. But it appears that the thousands of Syrian war migrants have come to Armenia to stay, Armenian officials say.
“If . . . last year, some 80-90 percent of Syrian Armenians were saying that they planned on going back to Syria, now they are thinking of making their home here,” Firdus Zakaryan, a representative of the Diaspora ministry told the Panorama news site.
Extending a helping hand to ethnic Armenian communities in trouble is a matter of national honor for the Armenian state, which maintains close ties with the far-flung Armenian Diaspora. Over the past few years, Yerevan has been carrying in and making room for thousands of ethnic Armenians caught in the crossfire between the Syrian government and rebels.
Yerevan says it is happy to have Armenia's Syrian relatives over for as long as they want. But the extended hospitality is a major humanitarian burden. The Armenian government needs to find housing, jobs and schools for the endless stream of arrivals, who have spent generations apart from Armenia, and speak Arabic and/or Western Armenian, not the official Eastern Armenian of the motherland.
But with the country still struggling to cope with massive labor migration -- disputed government data claims 49,660 citizens emigrated for good in 2012, EurasiaNet.org's Marianna Grigoryan has reported -- dealing with an influx of newcomers is a task Armenia is more than willing to take on, however.
To make sure exiles from Syria feel at home in Armenia, the government has commissioned the construction of an entire settlement called New Aleppo.
Located 20 kilometers shy of the capital, Yerevan, the residential project will accommodate some of the thousands of Syrians of Armenian descent, who escaped the war in Syria.
New Aleppo, named in honor of the wartorn northern Syrian city that houses most of Syria's ethnic Armenian population, will sit on 4.8 hectares (some 11 acres) of land in the industrial town of Ashtarak.
Armenia's Ministry of Diaspora Affairs reports that some 600 families have expressed willingness to move into the development's apartments. They will be expected to pay half the cost of the flats; the authorities and charity groups are expected to pick up the rest of the tab.
With some 7,000 Syrian-Armenians now seeking residency in Armenia, the government says that more Syrian quarters will be popping up across the country as well.
The Syrian Diaspora, estimated to be over 100,000-strong, descends from ethnic Armenians who fled World-War-I-era massacres in Ottoman Turkey. Now, a century later, the bloody rebellion in Syria has driven the community back to what is considered their ancestral homeland.
Some commentators say that preserving the Armenian community in Syria should be the main priority for Yerevan. Fears exist that the Diaspora exodus could reduce Armenia’s ability to exert any influence in the Middle East, long seen as an important Diaspora outpost.
A small, Kyrgyzstan-based airline is helping Tehran “move suspected illicit cargo” to support Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown in Syria, the US Treasury Department says.
Treasury has sanctioned Kyrgyz Trans Avia (KTA) for leasing and selling aircraft to Iran’s Mahan Air. Washington blacklisted Mahan Air in October 2011 “for providing financial, material and technological support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and has transported personnel, weapons and goods on behalf of Lebanese Hizballah,” a May 31 Treasury statement says.
KTA was designated pursuant to E.O. 13224 for providing financial, material, or technological support for, or financial or other services to Mahan Air, by leasing aircraft to Mahan Air. KTA has been publicly identified as an umbrella company purposely established for importing aircraft to Iran. In this regard, between 2009 and 2010, KTA acted as an intermediary for Mahan Air's acquisition of eight aircraft, all of which are now identified by Treasury as blocked property operated by Mahan Air. Some of the aircraft supplied by KTA to Mahan Air are used, interchangeably, to move suspected illicit cargo to the Syrian regime and provide civilian passenger flights to Europe and Asia.
The designation prohibits US citizens, permanent residents, and American companies from dealing with KTA or its director, 58-year-old Lidia Kim, who Treasury designated “for acting for or on behalf of KTA by serving as the director of the company. Kim has received funds from a Mahan Air front company for equipment provided to the airline.” KTC is listed as headquartered at Erkindik 35 in Bishkek.
In the same announcement, Treasury sanctioned Ukraine’s Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines (Um Air) for similar activity.
The roles played by regional powers Russia and Turkey in Syria's civil war are well documented, the former on the side of the government of Bashar al-Assad, and the latter on the side of the opposition. But according to a new report by a human rights group, Georgia and Azerbaijan also play bit parts in helping the Syrian government.
The report by the Human Rights First, Enablers of the Syrian Conflict (pdf), attempts to shine light on the international actors fueling the bloodshed in that country. It focuses solely on aid given to the government of Syria, not to the rebels. "Although both sides of the conflict are responsible for atrocities, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the vast majority," the report says.
Private companies in Georgia and Lebanon have supplied Syria with diesel fuel, the report notes:
[S]mall vessels carrying diesel from Georgia have also sailed into Syria.The United States provides foreign assistance to both Lebanon and Georgia. This assistance, and close bilateral relations, affords the United States an opportunity to exercise diplomatic and political action to have the Lebanese and Georgian governments investigate these reports and stop actors within those countries from fueling the crisis in Syria.
For its part, Azerbaijan allows Russia to use its airspace for shipments of weapons and cash:
Some lethal provisions to Syria by air initially involved transit through Turkey; however, after Turkey took steps to inspect suspected arms flights to Syria, Russia, Iran, and North Korea have all attempted to instead use Iraq as an arms corridor, with Russian transfers also traveling through Azerbaijan and Iran....
Russia has weighed in on ongoing discussions between Turkey and NATO about the possibility of stationing NATO missile defense systems on the Turkey-Syria border, saying that it would destabilize the situation. From RIA Novosti:
"The militarization of the Turkish-Syrian border would be an alarming signal," said ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich. "It would do nothing to foster stability in the region."
"Our advice to our Turkish colleagues is to use their influence on the Syrian opposition to draw them closer to dialogue, instead of flexing their muscles and taking the situation down a dangerous path," he added.
A NATO team is making a visit to Turkey next week to assess the possibility of deploying a system there, and NATO is expected to approve the request. Nevertheless, the AP reports that the systems could still be several weeks from being deployed:
Due to the complexity and size of the Patriot batteries, their radars, command-and-control centers, communications and support facilities, they cannot be sent quickly by air to Turkey, officials said.
"These are not drop-and-go systems," said an official who could not be identified in line with standing NATO regulations.
Additional time will be needed to install the systems, realign their radars and link them into Turkey's air defense network before the Patriots can be considered fully operational, the official said.
As reported earlier by EurasiaNet.org, the arrival in Armenia of Armenian-Syrian refugees is creating some friction. Now, some politicians from both Armenia proper and Nagorno-Karabakh are floating a controversial remedy; encouraging those fleeing the Syrian violence to settle in the breakaway republic.
Since the 1988-1994 conflict that resulted in the expulsion of the territory’s Azeris, Nagorno-Karabakh has experienced a steady decline of its Armenian population. To halt the demographic trend, the region has hosted a mass wedding, and, recently, authorities mulled offering convicts a fresh start there.
The idea of Armenian-Syrians resettling in Karabakh has irked the Azerbaijani government, which still is struggling to regain the territory. Officials in Baku have asked international negotiators mediating the Karabakh conflict to exert influence on Yerevan to abandon the idea.
Meanwhile, a large American organization, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, announced that it had set aside $1 million as an emergency fund for Syrian-Armenians – for both those who seek to flee the violence and those who choose to remain in Syria.
Armenia is just not big enough to accommodate all the ethnic Armenian refugees from Syria, say some concerned Armenian observers. Almost 5,200 Syrians, mostly of Armenian descent, have requested Armenian citizenship since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, and the influx is touching off concerns in the small, cash-strapped Caucasus country.
Syrians with Caucasian roots continue to flee to their distant ancestral lands across the Caucasus. Even troubled spots like the breakaway region of Abkhazia, and, in Russia's North Caucasus, the regions of Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea, seem safe and welcoming places to be.
But it is Armenia that is facing the biggest Diaspora homecoming. An Aleppo-Yerevan flight keeps bringing in more and more Syrians. Some say they are moving temporarily to weather out the storm at home, while others are ready to call Armenia home.
“My ancestors moved to Syria, escaping the genocide [of Armenians] in Ottoman Turkey. Now we have fled that once peaceful country,” one Syrian migrant told Kavkazsky Uzel news service. He hopes to make it in Armenia with his family or try to move Los Angeles, home to his brother and a large ethnic Armenian community.
Armenian authorities say they are eager to take in refugees, but concerns are growing over their ability to do so. And over the dwindling ethnic Armenian presence in the Middle East. Ethnic Armenians have lived in Syria for centuries and the Armenian government should not let that community disappear, Yerevan State University's Arab studies expert Ayk Kocharian told Kavkazsky Uzel.
Abkhazia may be an impoverished, largely unrecognized piece of separatist Caucasus territory, but, for many, it sure beats Syria these days.
Thirty-two Syrians of Abkhaz descent have escaped the violence at home and moved to the breakaway territory in a transfer facilitated by the de-facto Abkhaz authorities (and, perhaps, their patrons in Moscow).
Another 50 Syrian-Abkhaz are expected "in the near future," the region's de-facto Repatriation Committee Chairperson Zurab Adleiby told Kavkazsky Uzel news service. One hundred total are expected this year, Apsnypress reported.
The de-facto Abkhaz government reportedly is trying to fix them up with jobs and is preparing permanent housing near the capital city, Sukhumi.
As they have for Abkhaz-Turks as well, the Abkhaz have hailed the Syrians' arrival as a homecoming. It may have been a while (a century and half, to be specific) since these families’ ancestors were driven out of Abkhazia by Tsarist Russia, but, in the Caucasus, centuries-old events are often discussed as things that happened yesterday.
Some Syrian-Abkhaz have done a better job preserving their knowledge of Abkhaz language and customs over the generations, than others, however. A video report from the Kavkazsky Uzel shows a seven-year-old Syrian girl reciting a poem in Abkhaz, while an elderly woman in an Arab-style headdress says it is harder for older people to learn the local language.