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.
Moscow's new anti-NATO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has promoted itself as a tool for putting down Arab Spring-style uprisings in the post-Soviet space. But now backers are going a step further, proposing the CSTO deal with the Arab Spring at its source, by sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria.
The proposal was made by Igor Yurgens, the head of Kremlin-affiliated think tank Institute for Contemporary Development, according to a report in the newspaper Izvestia:
“We should take a more flexible stance on Syria,” he said. “Let’s propose sending CSTO peacekeepers to Syria. The unit has 20,000 well trained and armed servicemen. Let’s send them to the assistance of Kofi Annan – at our expense.”
Ahead of last year's CSTO joint military exercises, Russia's Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov said the exercise's scenario would deal with "possible negative developments following the example of events in Libya and Syria." But it's a big step from putting down those uprisings at home, and another to put them down in another part of the world.
If the CSTO has 20,000 well trained peacekeepers, 19,000 of them are Russian. The remaining CSTO member states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- have shown only occasional enthusiasm for Russia's ambitious plans for the alliance, and it's hard, if not impossible, to imagine any of those countries sending their soldiers to Syria.
Yurgens's proposal came the same day that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly blamed Russia for blocking international assistance to Syria. Yurgens alluded to the fact that Russia's position on Syria is doing it no favors in the international arena:
For Sokhumi, the timing could not be better. Breakaway Abkhazia has invited ethnic Abkhaz from chaotic Syria to resettle in their ancestors’ land and fill the population void left by the territory's 1992-1994 war with Tbilisi. The region’s de-facto authorities declare that the return has begun, as they have five takers already.
An Abkhaz de-facto official claimed, though, that the homecoming is not an immediate consequence of the ongoing violence in Syria. “The majority of people looking to return had been planning to do so long before the situation in Syria worsened, but developments in this country have expedited the process,” Kavkazsky Uzel news service quoted Inar Gitsba, head of the Turkey and Middle East Department of Abkhazia’s de-facto Foreign Ministry, as saying.
Earlier this year, Sokhumi sent a diplomatic mission to Syria to facilitate the repatriation of some 8,000 Syrians of Abkhaz descent. De-facto officials now say that some 90 Syrian-Abkhaz will resettle in Abkhazia by year’s end.
Returning Abkhaz have been offered a temporary stay in a Sokhumi hotel and, then, a permanent residence in the nearby region of Gulripshi.
It's unclear whether the century-and-a-half homecoming will be a large one, however. Sokhumi held similar expectations for Diaspora Abkhaz from Turkey, but, often discouraged by local living conditions, their return, for the most part, has been more sporadic than epic.