Vicken Cheterian

Armenians in Middle Eastern Wars: From “Positive Neutrality” to “Impossible Neutrality”

In Lebanon and Syria, Armenian community leaders declared their neutrality. Yet the outcome was very different.

I was driving my motorcycle in early morning on my way to school, when a boy whose Kalashnikov rifle seemed bigger than him stopped me as I approached Barbir-Museum crossing. It was Spring 1984, a month or two after the February Uprising which divided Beirut once again to two parts, and to go to school I had to cross a war-front each morning, and on my way back home. The young militiaman asked for my identification, and after reading my religious belonging where it was noted “Armenian Orthodox”, and not understanding, he asked again: “What are you?” I answered: “I am Armenian.” The young militiaman, embarrassed for not guessing whether “Armenian” was Muslim or Christian, he told me I could go.

In case the young man with the Kalashnikov had known what an “Armenian” was, he would have known that it was the best possible identity to cross Lebanese war checkpoints. As the war erupted in 1975, the three Armenian political parties –Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Tashnak Party, the Social-Democrat Hunchag Party, and the liberal Ramgavar - commonly declared “positive neutrality”, meaning that they would not participate in the violence but be engaged politically for the unity and conflict resolution efforts in Lebanon. This neutrality did not come out of indifference towards the fate of Lebanon, but out of bitter experience of past political failures. In the 1958 conflict in Lebanon, Armenians were as much divided as the rest of Lebanese communities, and had fought on various sides: the Tashnaks had allied themselves with President Camille Chamoun, and the Hunchags and Armenian Communists with Kamal Jombulat. While the Tashnak Party dominated over Burj Hamoud, the Hunchag’s controlled Hadjin and Khalil Badawi streets. The outcome was three-dozen young people dead in fighting, or in subsequent revenge assassinations.

In the 1960’s and early 70’s, Armenian community leaders engaged in series of meetings to overcome the divisions and traumatic violence of 1958. As the situation in Lebanon deteriorated, especially after 1969 Cairo agreement authorizing Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon, Armenian leaders anticipated the risks of new violence and collectively developed a policy to preserve the safety of their community in case of the eruption of a new civil war. Therefore, Armenian neutrality in the Lebanese war is not the result of indifference, but the outcome of conscious effort of learning from lessons of the past.

The Lebanese warring factions did not always tolerate Armenian neutrality. In September 1979, Christian militiamen belonging to Phalangist and National Liberal (Ahrar) parties, attacked Armenian positions in Burj Hamoud, aiming to bring those areas under unified Christian domination. It was part of Bashir Gemael’s drive to unite all Christian areas and armed groups within the Lebanese Forces, under his control, and possibly opt for semi-autonomous Christian unit within Lebanon. Resistance by Armenian self-defense units failed the attempt, and Armenians did not come under the Lebanese Forces paramilitary umbrella. In 1986, as West Beirut was witnessing the emergence of Muslim fundamentalism, a series of attacks targeted Westerners, trade-union activists, and Christians in West Beirut. In this context, a number of Armenians were assassinated, causing a large wave of migration. 

In the 1970’s witnessed the emergence of Armenian armed groups, ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and Justice Commandos of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian youth were copying Palestinian guerilla culture to fight for justice in the case of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. ASALA was the direct outcome of PLO, as its founder was a former member of the Popular Front, but the Justice Commandos were close to Tashnag Party, and had its roots to the Armenian guerilla movements in the Ottoman Empire going back to the late 19th century. The two groups played a major role to publicize the Armenian cause, but ended up in eclipsing in fratricide in fighting. 

Yet, in spite of these and other events, the neutrality of the Armenian parties protected the community from becoming targets of violence and decreased its losses.

When the Syrian conflict erupted, Armenian community leaders there adopted the slogan of “positive neutrality” that was raised in Lebanon in 1975. Yet, the conditions in Syria were very different from that of Lebanon. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition accepted the idea of Armenian neutrality. 

When Syria became independent in 1946, it had a total population of 2.9 million, from which over 100’000 were Armenians. Aleppo alone had 60’200 Armenians, from a total of 325’000. Yet, the time Bashar al-Asad came to power, Armenian population had decreased to 60-70 thousand from a total of Syrian population of 16.4 million (it increased to 20.8 million in 2011). Armenians left Syria massively in the 1960’s and 70’s because of repressive policies of Baath, and because of restriction in free enterprise. Not only the community lost its demographic significance, but also the most active individuals left for Lebanon (especially before 1975), the Arab Gulf or the West, leaving behind a community that could accommodate Syrian Baath regime.

When the 2011 popular movement started, the educated elements among Syrian Armenians were sympathetic to the reformist slogans of the early demonstrations (freedom, end of state of emergency), but the predominant mood in the community was against it. The argument was that Syria could either remain stable under Asad, or any change risked turning into a bloody civil-war. “Didn’t you see what happened in Lebanon, in Iraq” they argued. 

The Asad regime could not tolerate “neutrality” neither. The Syrian-Armenian community leaders knew the regime figures, how to dialogue with them, but they knew not much about the opposition – as Syria was a closed system until 2011. The chaotic character of the opposition, with its political figures abroad, and multiple and ever changing military formations, made the task of establishing relations with the opposition a hard task. The fact that the Syrian opposition – political and military – largely based in Turkey added to the suspicion of the Armenians, much like the suspicion of Syrian Kurds and Assyrians. 

In 2013, as opposition fighters entered the village of Yakoubieh, north of Jisr al-Shughur, its Armenian population left their houses, which were occupied and looted. The worse was yet to come. In March 2014 armed groups belonging to al-Nusra and its allies in an operation called al-Anfal, attacked the town of Kessab, supported by Turkish army, and overrun its defenses. The 2’000 inhabitants managed to escape. Those remaining were mostly elderly people, who were taken to Turkey, and from there to Lebanon and Latakya. The gunmen looted the touristic town, and desecrated the Armenian churches. The Syrian opposition fighters with their salafi-jihadi ideology, did not tolerate the presence of Armenians in the areas they took over.

The Armenian conservatism has another cause: most of these communities were the result of the Ottoman deportations and massacres that decimated Armenian population. Those refugees and orphans had built new communities, schools, churches, which are again threatened by new cycle of violence, pushing them to migrate further away to the US, Canada, Australia, further away from the historic homeland. When the fighting stops and the dust settles, what will survive from the once prosperous Armenian communities in Aleppo?

Between the war in Lebanon and Syria, Armenian position remained the same, but the outcome was very different. Not only the Syrian Baathism is different compared to Lebanese political culture, but also we have a generation change in dissident movements: for the Palestinian guerillas in the 60’s and the 70’s the Armenians were allies, a people that suffered from a similar fate. PLO fighters never used violence against Armenian communities. In the radical Islamist vision Armenians are kuffar, foreigners, a population that has no right to have a say in politics. Of course, their vision does not correspond with history, and is the result of ignorance. But that is another interesting story to tell.