The War in Syria and Us: The Obligation of Updating Our National Security Strategy

Anti-government rebels in Syria (photo by Goran Tomasevic Reuters)

BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN

From The Armenian Weekly

I don’t have any ambitions to bring something more or new to what has already been said about the crisis in Syria. So much has been written that it seems redundant even to add a single line. Yet, we have no choice: The war in Syria and its inevitable and often unanticipated consequences touches us, Armenians, all over the planet.

We have to return and return to it, because as the war unfolds with renewed fervor, up into the light surfaces all of those long-silenced and unresolved issues, the massive geopolitical entanglement that has had the greater Middle East in its grip for almost a century.

A list of peoples and nations have been waiting for an opening, a chance to reshuffle everything—allies, foes, borders, alignments. The threat of total war in the region has been on the horizon for decades; one could even say that Iranians, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, (Armenians?) and a whole range of minorities have now woken up after a long drawn-out wait, in anticipation of the right time and opportunity, and they have been doing this since the infamous Picot-Sykes Agreement. That agreement gave birth to the map of the Middle East we are familiar with today. (Named after its two negotiators, the French Georges Picot and the British Sir Mark Sykes, the agreement was a secret understanding made between France and Britain in 1916 regarding the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.)

Why should this be of special interest to us Armenians? After all, the re-ordering of the region has been going on for at least a decade now.

This time, however, the war in Syria and its potential repercussions risk over-turning the “familiar” world we have learned to live with; and it promises a broader re-ordering of the region in which Kurdish aspirations are just one part of a very complex picture.

Many of the problems in the present-day Middle East are traced to the Sykes-Picot map, which introduced the state system to the region. The Armenian, Palestine, and Kurdish Questions are cases in point. The current swelling uproar and revolts have exposed the fragility of the security system and geopolitical order that were inflicted upon the region.

The national borders of the region’s countries do not correspond to the communities’ differing identity narratives. Yet, how genuine is the interest and engagement of the international community in redrawing the map?

The events on the ground in Syria, what happened in Iraq and Lebanon, show that the parties will fight to the end in order to avoid a re-mapping of the region. What must be added to the major actors’ perspective is stability and untouchable borders. Syria will show where the line is drawn for tolerance, or the lack of tolerance.

What is interesting for us Armenians is not how or in what ways President Assad and his regime will perish, but rather what will happen when it collapses. Syria’s downfall will probably bring down the “whole temple.” As Assad falls down, he will bring down with him as many as possible. That will leave us with an uncertain future for decades to come, while the repercussions of the downfall produce a volatile region being nurtured by prolonged instability.

Some believe that exporting chaos will be the name of the game. And that the consequences of the possible shake-up of the uncertain political and social structures will reverberate across the entire region, engulfing not only a future fragmented Syria, but also Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and likely the South Caucasus.

What does this chaos mean and how will the new security structure borne from this chaos inform our future as a nation living in its midst?

Can we make predictions? Can we prepare ourselves for the unforeseen, although we all know that predictions are always tricky?

Across the world, Armenians outside and inside Armenia have been struck by fear. Fear is the passion that blurs judgment. And in a naive way, we have mainly focused on a specific aspect of the conflict, that is, the security of the Armenian community in Syria. In an attempt to alleviate our fears we have called for immediate action for our blood brothers. While this reaction is understandable and reasonable, the analysis of the needs of the Armenians in Syria indicates that their needs are not immediate (in comparison to the typical needs of refugees regarding food supplies, accommodations, and so on).

What is in great need is the picture of the future, an outlook of possibilities, scenarios, and adequate solutions. The conflict in Syria is unfolding in ways unknown, and our duty is to look into the eye of the storm and make sense of what is to come.

The remapping of the region and the prospect of a new Kurdish state sets the security of the Armenian Diaspora in the Middle East and Armenia’s national security on totally new premises. The entire area is a patchwork of sectarian and ethnic enclaves that has seen bursts of religiously motivated violence many times before. That violence could reach us, directly or indirectly. The obvious question, then, that we need to ask ourselves is: Do we, as a collective, as a nation, have any chance to become a player on the ground while the new security order is being engineered? What we have to realize, and act in accordance of, is that the new order could be enticed in spite of us, and to our detriment.

Questions such as “Will the Kurds in Syria be allowed to break away, as they were allowed to do in Northern Iraq?” ceases to be just a mental exercise.

What are the implications of the obvious trend of the empowerment of Kurds?

How will it be used? Will it be used, as previously, as a way of weakening states—Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria? The Kurdish dimension of this conflict is likely to become a dominant factor in the near future because of the weakening of each of the states in which the Kurds live. During the last decade, it has been difficult for the Turkish and Iraqi states to curb the Kurds, and cooperation among them for restricting Kurdish aspirations is at the moment non-existent. At the same time, and not be overlooked, is that the Kurds have proven their loyalty and lack of religious radicalism to the West. Could the latter decide to support them? The several dimensions of the Kurdish issue will likely create a real trouble spot in the region, which can threaten ignition at any moment.

Yet, Armenians and Armenia still do not recognize the Syrian crisis and its repercussions as a national security threat. We must ask: In what ways will Armenia be affected if and when Israel attacks Iran? What will happen to our nuclear power facilities? What will happen if we are faced with an influx of Armenians (and Iranians) from Iran? What will happen to our immediate and future security options if suddenly we have a new neighbor to the east, the state of Kurdistan? Are we prepared for an emboldened Turkey crossing borders, bombing? What will happen if Azerbaijan decides to attack in an attempt to profit form the chaos?

We have not created mechanisms that address the dynamics of the Middle East and the rapidly developing challenges, some visible but mostly invisible. Who ultimately identifies the regional threats to our security? The Armenian National Security Council has proven to be a total failure, a toothless institution. The government’s handlings show that consciously or unconsciously we have freed ourselves from responsibility, seeking redemption elsewhere; in the minds of Armenia’s statesmen and Diasporan Armenians, the assessment of regional risks are to be dealt with by the Collective Security Treaty Organization and/or NATO—security instruments that are outside our own.

Although the national security strategy of the Republic of Armenia recognizes the “decline of the national and cultural identity of the Armenian Diaspora” as a threat to its national security, we still have not put in place the appropriate mechanisms to address the imminent dangers that we face as a collective.

The Syrian war and how we’ve dealt with it until now indicates that decision-making is running in parallel with the daily developments on the field; even then it is mostly addressing minor issues, such as the issue of a small group of Armenians from Syria seeking refuge in their homeland. (To understand how little Armenia has actually done, watch the interview with Arman Yeghiazaryan, the director of repatriation and research of the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12CjdWSuP9I&feature=player_embedded#!)

Under the pressure of fear of the unknown, we are oblivious to some very serious failings. Unfortunately, the Armenian state policy on national security and the supposedly adequate mechanisms did not pass the test of the Syrian challenge. The Syrian war became our ultimate litmus test: It exposed our policy shortcomings not only on national security, but also on our unpreparedness pertaining to legal procedures, crisis management, humanitarian aid, and specifically, resource management. The Syrian Armenian community is the responsibility of not just one agency in Armenia (the ministry of diaspora) but the whole apparatus, government, and society at large.

We have failed to address the needs of the Armenian community in Syria. The same ambiguity and fear has also invaded the diaspora. We do not know what is to be done. We too have been defenders of the status quo, calling for allegiance, imprisoned inside the restricted outlook—a framework that sees only the immediate present.

But most importantly we have failed in projecting our interests within the new security environment and marking out our new goals.

Suzanne Khardalian is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Armenian-language newspapers.

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8 Comments

  1. Hrant K. said:

    Totally agree with your concerns Suzanne and the urgent need to act before it’s too late!!!
    We need visionary leadership both @ the homefront and the diaspora!

  2. Raffi said:

    Well said, the current Armenian government proved that it is a symbol of corruption. I still remember when the earthquake hit Armenia, I was still in Syria, and the whole community started donating money, food, cloths. We haven’t;t heard from Armenian government any single statement as we feel we are not Armenian. We have no one but God

  3. Svetlana Swanson said:

    It is utterly unfair when Diaspora Armenians put all their expectations on the government of the Republic of Armenia. As a newly independent country, the RA (Republic of Armenia) has many life threatening geopolitical, and socio-economic problems to deal with. This additional dumping of responsibility by the Diaspora Armenians adds additional strains on the limited resources available for the 20 year old republic.

    For years Diaspora Armenians and their socio-political and charitable organizations have relinquished responsibility for the pursuit of the human rights, and the right of return for all Armenians to their historic homeland. Before the independence of the Soviet Armenia, Diaspora Armenians blamed the big powers; US, England, France and Germany for the inaction. Now everybody is ready to blame the Armenian Government and the Armenian Oligarchs.

    The responsibilities to organize, represent, and pursue the rights of the dispersed Armenians falls squarely on the dispersed Armenians themselves. Furthermore, they have no one else to blame except themselves for their inability to organize and maintain a government or a representative body of dispersed Armenians to pursue their own human rights.

    Svetlana Swanson

  4. jacque said:

    job well done and straight to the core of the Armenian existence question.
    time is now for the governement of Armenia to see the big Armenian picture and not be engolfed with its local imediate statues quoe only.
    as represenative of the Armenian poeple in and out of Armenia the Armenian governement has to step up to theese challanges and make sure our demands and intrests are deffended and secured.
    time is now to fight for what is wrightfuly ours and play our chips accordangly.

  5. Hripsime said:

    It is very useful and logical analysis!

    “We have failed to address the needs of the Armenian community in Syria”

  6. Fred said:

    I believe The domino effect in the Arab world is manufactured. It is to orchestrate a dangerous pressident were by Israel would have to attack to difend itself. This game will end in only one way, Israel will take control of much of the oil in middle east. We will be powerless to do anything. The mighty Israel will dassle us with advance weopenery the likes of which we can not immagine. We must find a quite corner in the world away from the cities as a cold wind is bringing the the 3rd world war. The first world war was created to fasilitate the creation of Modern Israel by Brittish Empire. The second world war was created to force the jews to vacate their cushy western lives and settle in Israel. The 3rd world was will be to establish Israel as the leading state in the world. The prophesy is being completed. May God save us Armenians as we are too close to ground Zero.

  7. Gevork said:

    Bashir Assad would be smart to create Syrian Republic of Aleppo and a Syrian Republic of Damascus and this would allow the government to seal the borders. The borders need to be sealed to prevent these Muslim brotherhood terrorists from entering. Syria can also offer Russia a large piece of land in Syria to build a base and incite Russia to fight on the behalf of Assad. Israel is also playing a large role in destroying it’s strongest opponent in the Middle East. It was Syrian anti-tank missles given to Hezbollah which stopped the Israeli tanks and played a role in preventing greater Israeli aggression. Israel wants to destroy Syria and deport the Palestinians to Syria and take over the West bank. Some right wing Israelis even have dreams of a greater Israel whose picture is on the Shekel coin (israeli currency). Victor Ostrovsky, the former Mossad spy even talks about close links between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mossad.

  8. silver price said:

    Other possible regional impacts of the spiraling chaos in Syria include refugee flows, sectarian conflict, and non-state transnational violence, as well as the questionable security of Syria’s large stockpiles of conventional and chemical weapons (WSJ) .

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