DAMASCUS, Syria (RFE/RL)—Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian expressed serious concern at the plight of ethnic Armenians remaining in Syria and blamed Islamist terrorists for the continuing bloodshed there when he visited Damascus on Wednesday.
He met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid growing calls in Armenia for the evacuation of thousands of Syrian Armenians trapped by fierce fighting between Syrian government troops and mostly Islamist rebels.
“We are deeply concerned about the continuing clashes, ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and numerous casualties and calamities resulting from terrorists’ actions,” Nalbandian told a joint news conference with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem held after the talks.
In a clear reference to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical militant groups fighting Assad’s regime, Nalbandian emphasized the “inadmissibly of supporting terrorists” in Syria’s bloody civil war. “We will continue to keep these issues at the center of the international community’s attention,” he added in remarks reported by the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
Assad praised this stance during the meeting with Nalbandian. “President al-Assad lauded Armenia’s position regarding the crisis in Syria, saying that Armenia can play a vital role at this critical juncture in the region by relaying to Western countries the truth about what is happening in the Middle East,” reported the official Syrian news agency SANA.
Nalbandian and his press office divulged few details of the talks with Assad and Moallem. The chief Armenian diplomat told reporters only that they discussed ongoing efforts to end the Syrian conflict, according to the RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am).
The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan said ahead of the talks that Nalbandian will also meet in Damascus with leaders of Syria’s endangered Armenian community concentrated in the northern city of Aleppo. It issued no statements on that meeting later in the day.
The community numbered an estimated 80,000 members before the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. It is thought to have shrunk by more than half, with some 13,000 Syrian Armenians currently residing in Armenia alone.
Fighting in and around Aleppo has intensified in recent months, causing even more hardship to the thousands of Armenians still living there. Many of them are reportedly desperate to flee the city but are unable to do so because of the security situation.
The Armenian government has been facing calls, including from Syrian Armenian refugees in Yerevan, to help evacuate them to Armenia. The government has until now resisted such appeals, pointing to the position of the Syrian Armenian community’s political and religious leaders. The latter remain opposed to the evacuation.
Signaling a change in official Yerevan’s policy, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian suggested earlier this month that a mass exodus of the remaining Armenians from Syria may be only a matter of time. The Armenian government should therefore start exploring ways of helping Syrian Armenians willing to leave Aleppo and other parts of the war-ravaged nation, she said.
Hakobian also said that official Armenian delegations will visit Syria soon to assess the situation on the ground. “After they come back we will give you a more concrete message,” she told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) on May 13.
Assad Links Armenian Genocide with ISIS Atrocities
In his meeting with Nalbandian on Wednesday, President al-Assad reportedly drew parallels between the Ottoman Turks who massacred Armenians a century ago and Islamist militants targeting innocent civilians in their bloody war against his regime, RFE/RL’s Armenian service reported.
Assad again accused neighboring Turkey of sponsoring these “terrorists” as he met with Armenia’s visiting Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian in Damascus.
“President al-Assad noted that the suffering that the Armenian people experienced throughout their history is being experienced today by the Syrian people at the hands of the same murderous and terrorist sides,” reported the official SANA news agency.
Ankara’s strong support for Syrian rebels has “brought back the suffering that the region’s people experienced during the times of the Ottoman Empire,” it cited the Syrian president as saying.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem elaborated on this claim at a joint news conference with Nalbandian. “If the international community had imposed necessary punishment on the butchers who committed the massacres against Armenians in the early 20th century, then their descendants today in Turkey wouldn’t have dared to commit massacres via their pawns in Syria,” Moallem said, according to SANA.
Nalbandian seemed to agree. “Impunity gives rise to new crimes, as evidenced by brutal atrocities committed by the terrorists now,” he said.
Assad’s regime has repeatedly accused Turkey of providing military, logistical and political support to ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, the most successful of the Syrian rebel groups. Ankara denies these claims backed up by Western media reports.
ISIS was widely blamed for last year’s destruction of an Armenian church in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. The Saint Martyrs’ Church was part of a memorial complex to some 1.5 million victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey. Many of them were starved to death in the desert surrounding Deir ez-Zor.
Nalbandian mentioned the church destruction, strongly condemned by the West, at the Damascus news conference. He also stressed that Syria became a “second homeland” for tens of thousands of Armenian survivors of the genocide.
While helping the descendants of those Armenians become a thriving community in Syria, successive Syrian governments avoided recognizing the 1915 mass killings as genocide. Assad pointedly declined to visit the genocide memorial in Yerevan during an official trip to Armenia in 2009. The Syrian leader, who had a warm rapport with then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the time, instead offered to mediate more Turkish-Armenian fence-mending negotiations.
The situation changed dramatically after outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and ensuing deterioration of Ankara’s relations with the Syrian regime.
In March, Syria’s parliament held a special a session to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. “We express our solidarity with the friendly Armenian people, as well as our Syrian Armenian compatriots, who fell victim to the heinous genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman authorities,” its speaker, Mohammad Jihad al-Laham, said in a speech.
Laham was among foreign dignitaries who attended the April 24 ceremony in Yerevan that marked the genocide centennial.