Thousands of ethnic Armenians remaining in Syria braced themselves for a further escalation of the bloody conflict in their country on Wednesday amid growing talk of U.S.-led military strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Speaking to RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by phone, several Syrian Armenians trapped in Aleppo said they are already preparing to use the basements of their homes as shelters if the United States and other Western powers act on their threats of military action.
The West blames the Syrian government for the August 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus that left scores of people dead. The government has denied those allegations, receiving support from Russia and China.
“The Armenian community is certainly worried,” said Zarmig Boghikian, an Aleppo woman working at a local Armenian magazine, “Gandzasar.” “We are neutral but concerned because those strikes will target the whole country. Leaders of the Armenian community are telling people to be cautious and don’t leave their homes too often for the next few days.”
“Many people are thinking about fleeing but that’s impossible to do in Aleppo now because the roads are closed,” added Boghigian.
Zhirayr Reisian, the spokesman for the local diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, insisted that the Syrian Armenian community is not starting to panic. “After all, we are residents of this city and country, we are part of this country and its people,” he said. “So whatever happens to the Syrian people can also happen to us.”
The diocese will do its best to help Armenians affected by possible strikes, added Reisian.
There were an estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians in Syria before the outbreak of the conflict there more than two years ago. About 10,000 of them have since taken refuge in Armenia, according to the authorities in Yerevan. An even larger number of Syrian Armenians is thought to have fled to neighboring Lebanon.
The prospect of U.S. air or missile strikes on Syrian government facilities has also left Syrian Armenian refugees in Armenia worrying about the plight of their loved ones remaining in the war-ravaged country. Raffi Tashjian, a Yerevan-based businessman, left behind a daughter and her family in Aleppo. “I keep asking what they are up to, why they stayed there and why they didn’t get out when conditions were good,” he said.
Harutiun Ustakarayan, another Syrian Armenian living in Yerevan, said his Aleppo-based friends are now busy turning their basements into bomb shelters. “Armenians don’t believe that America will strike cities. They are just worried that chemical weapons may be used again,” he said.
“The plight of the Syrian Armenians is increasingly worsening,” Ustakarayan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “If I were the [Armenian] government I would ask America or find other ways of evacuating them. The Armenians must be evacuated from there. They are not responsible for this war and must not endure a second genocide in 100 years.”
Virtually all Syrian nationals of Armenian origin are the descendants of survivors of the 1915 genocide in Ottoman Turkey.
The Armenian government has so far avoided calling on Armenians in Syria to leave the country, while pledging to help those of them who want to settle in Armenia. Nikolay Grigorian, the deputy director of the Armenian Rescue Service, said on Wednesday that the authorities in Yerevan will consider organizing their evacuation only if they receive a corresponding request from community leaders.