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.
Not surprisingly, 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.
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.