In what it described as a humanitarian mission requested by the Syrian government, Armenia sent 83 medics, demining experts and other military personnel to Syria on Friday.
The Armenian Defense Ministry said they were deployed in and around the war-torn city of Aleppo to help civilians and clear landmines left behind from the continuing bloody conflict in the Arab state. It stressed that these “humanitarian activities” will be carried out only in areas that are “free from hostilities.”
In a statement, the ministry also said that the servicemen were transported to Syria and will serve there “with the assistance of the Russian side.”
Armenia’s plans for such a deployment in Syria were first announced by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian in September following his talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin held in Moscow.
John Bolton, U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, discussed the issue with Pashinian and Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan when he visited Yerevan in October. Bolton warned them against sending combat troops to aid Syrian government forces or their allies.
“The prime minister said this was not going to be military assistance, it would be purely humanitarian,” Bolton said after the talks. “I think that’s important.”
Russia has been trying to legitimize its strong military presence in Syria, criticized by the West, by getting other countries allied to it to also deploy troops there. The former Armenian government was reluctant to do that. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September 2017, then President Serzh Sarkisian said Armenian deployment in Syria requires a UN mandate.
The Defense Ministry statement announcing the dispatch of Armenian servicemen cited two UN Security Council resolutions on Syria adopted in 2017 and 2018, “the severe humanitarian situation” in Aleppo and “written requests from the Syrian side.” It also pointed to the existence of an Armenian community in Aleppo.
An estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians lived in Syria and Aleppo in particular before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Most of them have since fled the country. Thousands of Syrian Armenians have taken refuge in Armenia.
A senior representative of Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Armen Ashotian, denounced the deployment, saying that under Armenian law troop deployments abroad cannot be carried out without international treaties signed by Yerevan. “For the sake of his political interests, Pashinian has blatantly violated the law,” Ashotian charged in a Facebook post.
Some commentators and critics of the Armenian government have suggested that Pashinian decided to send military personnel to Syria in a bid to mitigate Russia’s discontent with some of his decisions and statements. Pashinian allies have dismissed such speculation.
Ever since he came to power in May 2018, Pashinian has repeatedly ruled out major changes in Armenia’s traditional foreign policy. He has specifically backed his country’s continued membership in Russian-led military and trade blocs.
The Armenian medics, sappers and other servicemen tasked with protecting them were flown to Syria one day after Defense Minister Tonoyan began a fresh working visit to Moscow. He met on Friday with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Dmitry Shugayev, the head of a Russian government agency overseeing arms deals with foreign states.
Shoygu thanked Armenia for its “humanitarian assistance” to Syria. “You were the first to respond to our calls for helping the Syrian people,” he told Tonoyan.
For his part, Tonoyan was reported to praise Russia’s role in the “post-conflict reconstruction” of Syria. “And I think that our participation in this humanitarian operation is very important,” he added, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.