Working in various international human rights associations, Harout Ekmanian made a presentation in "Critical Approaches to Armenian Identity in 21st Century". Being an Armenian from Aleppo, Ekmanian follows the war in Syria as an observer in order to record the violations of rights and war crimes. We talked to Ekmanian about Syria, focusing on the Armenian community in Aleppo, which he knows very well.
There are some focal points of Syrian War and
Aleppo is one of them. Talking about the dynamics in Aleppo amounts
to talking about the war and the whole situation in the country. You
were born and raised in Aleppo; so, talking about Aleppo would be a
good start to our conversation. There is a popular question in
Turkey: To whom do Armenians in Aleppo give support in this war? To
Esad or to Free Syrian Army? Who are those Armenians in Aleppo and
what do they think about the parties of the war?
We can say that Armenian community in Aleppo is the main founder of the Armenian Diaspora. Survivors of 1915 massacres came to Aleppo first and most of them went to different parts of the world from Aleppo. For instance, how did the grandparents of Armenians living in Argentina or USA live in Aleppo? They would tell you how they survived there and then went to other countries, if you ask. Thus, Armenian community in Aleppo should be understood through this fact. This community's history is older than Ottoman Empire. First Ottoman, then French, and finally the republican rule came. This community went through all of these periods. Before 1915, there had been a community, though a smaller one. There is a social tradition, a social narration based on history. Those political talks, like asking whom they are supporting, come from this previous period. We should also understand that minority groups always tend to protect themselves. That self-protecting community doesn't give in the rebellion. They won't be the first ones to join a rebel or revolutionary group. This is a fact. There is a struggle of survival. Armenian community officially declared that they will be neutral. They said, “We are neutral, our only wish is to keep the country undivided. The state should continue to dominate, regardless of who would be its head.” They have been saying such things from the beginning. However, we cannot talk about how Armenian community has been really living since the emergence of the crisis and how they have been protecting themselves. Furthermore, the fact that this question has been commonly asked and discussed in Turkey shows that they are trying to “accuse” without waiting for an answer.
Nevertheless, there is still a community in Aleppo and they try to express themselves without using the official discourse. You follow such publications closely, what do those people talk about?
Yes, there is still a certain community there. The ones who don't have money or cannot get outside support stay there. And there are few people who have lots of properties, have too much to lose. Some people report from there and send articles written there. They talk about their daily lives. They don't only try to write in local publications, they also try to contribute to other publications. The only publication of the Armenian community is a weekly newspaper issued by the church. They do it mostly for recording. There is no other community doing this. However, those are a couple of elder people. There wasn't an environment encouraging the youth for thinking anyway. The young people who were thinking and writing in behalf of Armenians are lost now.
You said that there is a publication showing that the life goes on despite the war. This is not a bad thing, but I guess I wouldn't focus on only daily life, if I was given a chance to report from Aleppo.
They also report the bad things, but they are not very good at it. If the bombardment stops after weeks, then people start to live their ordinary life after a couple of days. They have no electricity, no running water, no internet connection. There is nothing, but they still stage plays and train the dancers and talk about these activities. Then the bombardment starts again, they cry out loud, saying that it is a disaster. And people naturally say, “But you staged a play just a few weeks ago...” The readers don't understand the reported material, because it is not coherent. There is no coherent narration. They fail to contextualize the situation. And the reason for this failure can be found in my previous answer.
I recently saw a report. There was a footage an
Armenian couple, who were allegedly rescued from Jarablus during
Euphrates Shield operation. They thank Turkish army. What do you
think about that?
This is not a first. Same thing happened during Kessab occupation. There were elder people there and FSA took them hostage. They tried to convert them to Islam. They said they would rather die, since they are old anyway. Then they left those people to Turkish border and people from Vakıfli village took them. I made a documentary about this. In Syria and generally in Middle East, non-Muslim minorities are treated like hostages. Some groups use them as a tool for improving their image. It is the same in Rojava and northern Kurdistan with Yazidis or Syriacs. In Syria, Esad and his father before him used minority groups in this way. In fact, this is how those minority groups survive. They at least protect themselves. Everybody tries to use the minority groups. However, the so-called moderate opposition in Syria doesn't care about the issue of minorities at all; their discourse is too narrow-minded. They are sectarian. They don't think about using the minorities even for show. They are openly expressing that they hate the Shia and all the non-Sunni Muslims. Given this fact, it is easy to guess what they think about Armenians and Christians. We have been hearing reports about ISIS, such as “ISIS kidnapped 100 Yazidi people”, “ISIS tortures Yazidi people” or “ISIS carries out genocide against Christians”. At the same time, we see that there is almost no difference between the group called Free Syrian Army or other jihadist groups and ISIS. For instance, these “moderate” opposition groups burned the churches down, when they entered Kessab. They entered Malula, where there is still an ancient Christian community speaking Aramaic. They destroyed that place too. There are many other examples like these. After such a violence against Christians, these group are using Christians for show now and this is just pathetic. They conveyed their message at the beginning anyway. Now, they are trying to restore their image, but there is nothing to be done anymore. For every one knows what they think and do. We know that jihadist groups had been backed by Turkey during Kessab invasion and the jihadist fighters came through Turkey. This means that Kessab operation was carried out under the aegis of Turkey. Now, there is the Euphrates Shield Operation. They enter Jarablus and pretend that they are doing a favor to Christians; this tactic got old. Nobody buy it anymore.
We can say that the narration concerning Armenians in particular and Christians in general in Syria is shaped in accordance with the relations with Turkey and the West. What do you think about that?
The official narration has always used Christians. During '80s and '90s, when some problems emerged between Syria and Turkey, the Armenian Genocide had been discussed, there were Armenians and scenes depicting the genocide in TV series, Armenians were portrayed as honest and hard working people and thus the image of bad Turks promoted. This is not a lie; generations of genocide survivors came to Syria with nothing and built a society there. However, these matters are brought to the agenda, only when there is a problem with Turkey; and they are censored when the relations are restored. For instance, between 2000 and 2011, the relations between Turkey and Syria was good. Back then, Erdoğan and Esad have been travelling together and had gatherings with each others' families. Back then, there was no discussion about the genocide. After that period, this issue emerged again. In his recent interviews, Esad started to say things like, “Turks massacred Armenians.” Now, it is useful. He tries to get the support of Armenians and Christians and he succeeds in doing that. When the riots erupted across the country, the state started to mobilize the minorities. They organized marches and made the minorities look like Esad supporters. In the end, majority of people who are displeased by the state are Sunni. I don't mean to say that Esad has no Sunni supporter, he certainly has, but only Sunnis support the revolution. However, many people with different backgrounds support the state. After Esad's campaign about the minorities, the Sunni circles ended up having more prejudices against the minorities. After Turkey's support to these Sunni groups increased, that “evil Turks” image I mentioned has changed. In Turkey, there has been a discourse concerning Armenians like “They allied with Russia and stabbed us in the back in 1915” and now, this discourse is also used by the pro-revolution Sunni circles in Syria. Meanwhile, Esad is using Armenians and Christians for his propaganda. These two different discourses complemented each other, but it is to the disadvantage of Armenians and other Christian groups. The state wanted to make the Christians look like its supporters and the opposition wanted to get rid of the Christians anyway; this is a perfect match. Thus, Christians, especially Armenians, are trapped in their current situation.
Though the majority of the groups fighting against ISIS in Rojava consists of Kurds, there are troops like Sutoro, The Syriac Security Office. Are Armenians involved in a similar movement, given the radical Islamist threat in the region. How do you assess the fact that Kurds are willing to fight together with Christians?
There is an Armenian community living in Qamishli in Rojava. The young Armenians there don't fight, but form their own neighborhoods. They don't fight in front lines.
Now, we see that Kurds are portrayed as the enemy in the Syrian War, because the opposition in Syria, from the most liberal looking to the most fierce jihadist, live with the love of Turkey. They get all the moral and material support from Turkey.
So, when Turkey sees Kurds as the enemy, these groups start to see them as enemies as well. Today, in the regions held by the opposition forces in Syria, being a Kurd is as bad as being a Christian. They are even more suspicious of Kurds. There was a footage circulating last week. The opposition forces enter a building somewhere in Aleppo and asked the civilians whether they are Kurdish. And the people were trying to convince them they are not. This situation created a discourse that was developed by Turkey, consisting of various accusations against Kurds. They ask questions like, “Why do Kurds fight against ISIS, but not against Esad?” This question is nonsense. ISIS comes, destroys everything, kidnaps women, turns children into jihadist fighter and slaughters the rest and they as why you don't fight against Esad. This is evil as you know. There is a hate speech against Kurds, which was developed in various ways.
The opposition forces bombarded the Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo, Sheikh Maqsood so heavily that we don't know the number of casualties. However, the media hasn't even covered it. Today, the opposition continues to bombard the state-held Christian neighborhoods. They call them “Esad's strongholds”, but ordinary people live in those places. The media doesn't bother to report such incidents.
Why is that?
The reason might be this: Russia and the US get up against each other in the region and BBC correspondents, for instance, may hesitate to report such news, since they don't want to be considered as Putin supporter.
I should also note that the media has been praising the opposition from the beginning and now, they cannot dare to condemn them. They have to say, “We praised them before, but now we condemn them for they went bad”, but they don't have the power to do so. And there are some others who make comparisons by using the figures. They say things like, “The opposition killed 10 people, but Esad killed 150.” The problem is not the number of the casualties, the problem is the bad intention.
What would the opposition do, if they are provided with air support? Many incidents proved that the opposition doesn't hesitate to violate human rights and international laws. Both Esad and the opposition have been using siege and starvation as war tactics.
While the state-held western Aleppo had been under siege of the opposition for months, civilians starved to death there and nobody covered that. Today, two Shia regions called Foa and Keferya has currently under siege and people try to survive the starvation. How could the figures be important under such circumstance? The important thing is the intention.
Today, the so-called moderate opposition groups have a discourse of exiling the non-Sunni groups and seizing their properties. What do you think about that?
At the beginning of the revolution, this discourse wasn't that strong, because the opposition included libertarians, liberals and leftists. Now, even the ones who call themselves liberal can come to terms with the most fierce jihadists. 'Alevis to the grave, Christians to Beirut' was a slogan invented during the first days of the rebellion and it is still commonly used. However, back then, it was condemned, because there were people with different views in the opposition. Once the opposition started to carry arms and became militarized, this slogan is started to be used more commonly. I should note that Kurds also use these communities for improving their image. Sometimes, they don't care much about what will happen to Christians. Kurds also violate human rights in the region. They give guns to the children and make them fight. In Arab settlements, they displace people and turn those places into Kurdish settlements. Honestly, I am against sanctification of a certain group, since there is not any group worthy of such a praise. And I think this is the reason why the tragedy in Syria goes on and on.