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Ethnic Armenians In Syria Brace For Missile Strikes

Many Syrian Armenians have already fled their country. According to Armenian government data, 6,248 left Syria for Armenia in the first six months of 2012.
Many Syrian Armenians have already fled their country. According to Armenian government data, 6,248 left Syria for Armenia in the first six months of 2012.
As the United States and its allies lay plans for what many believe will be a sustained missile strike inside Syria, the sizable ethnic Armenian community in that country is bracing for the worst.

Zhirayr Reisian, a spokesman for the Syrian diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that the estimated 100,000 ethnic Armenians in Aleppo were aware of the dangers that could lie ahead but were trying to continue with normal life.

"After all, we are residents of this city and this country. We are part of the people of this country," Reisian said. "If something is going to happen to all, it will also happen to us. If something happens, we are sure to use our means to be helpful with whatever we can to anyone who suffers and is in need of help."

Syrian Armenians interviewed by RFE/RL's Armenian Service say they have begun preparing for possible missile strikes, and many say they will take shelter in the basement of their buildings, if necessary.

Armenians first arrived en masse in Syria in the early 20th century, after the Ottoman government uprooted and forced thousands of them out of what is now Turkey and marched them into the Syrian desert. Aleppo, in the northwest of the country, soon swelled with fleeing Armenians. In the decades that followed, the community took root and prospered.

No Way Out

In modern times, ethnic Armenians in Syria have been treated benevolently by the two successive regimes of Hafez al-Assad and his son, Bashar. As minorities themselves -- they belong to the Alawite sect -- the ruling Assad family has long courted Syria's other ethnic minorities to strengthen their hand against the country's majority Sunni population.

But the 30-month-old civil war in Syria has exacted a toll on all Syrians, no matter which side they are on.

"The Armenian community is neutral, but it is concerned, because this possible strike will be delivered against the whole country and everyone without exception will suffer," says Zarmik Poghikian, who works at the Aleppo-based "Gandzasar" magazine.

"Leaders of the Armenian community have urged people to remain cautious during these days and refrain from attempting to leave the city, but even if someone wanted to do so there is no opportunity anymore, as all roads are closed."

Armenian residents of Aleppo say they couldn't leave if they wanted to, with roads and airport closed.
Armenian residents of Aleppo say they couldn't leave if they wanted to, with roads and airport closed.

Poghikian says the community is not in a state of panic but, even if it were, fleeing is no longer possible because the roads leading out of Aleppo are too dangerous and the airport has not been operational since late last year.

Many Syrian Armenians have already fled. According to Armenian government data, 6,248 left the country and came to Armenia in the first six months of 2012.

Now they are worried about families and friends still there. "I keep asking why they preferred staying there, why did they not leave when conditions were appropriate for that? What was there?" asks businessman Raffi Tashchian, who has a daughter in Aleppo. "At least they could have taken the child out of there. If they wanted to stay there they should at least have taken the child to a safe place. I don't want to imagine my child in such conditions."

'We Don't Need A Second Genocide'

Harutiun Ustakarayan, a Syrian Armenian also in Armenia, says everyone is hoping the United States and its allies won't launch a military strike. "Armenians do not believe that America will strike cities, but they will go down to the basements fearing that chemical weapons could be used [like in the August 21] sarin gas attack in Damascus," he says.

READ ALSO: Syrian Civil War -- A Timeline Of Tragedy

The Armenian government is officially neutral in the Syrian civil war and has not formally evacuated ethnic Armenians from the country. reported last year that the government was allowing Syrian citizens to obtain Armenian visas at the border and Armenian passports within Syria, rather than in Yerevan alone.

Some Syrian Armenians, like Ustakarayan, think Armenian officials should be doing more now that Western powers have signaled their readiness to join the battle. He says the situation has parallels to what happened when as many as 1.5 million Armenians died at Ottoman hands during World War I.

"The situation is getting increasingly worse for Armenians. If I were in a position to decide for the Armenian government, I would have asked the United States [for help] or ensured in some other way that [ethnic Armenians] are evacuated from there," Ustakarayan says. "I don't know how, but evacuated from there somehow, because Armenians have no fault in this whole war and we don't need a second genocide within just 100 years."

Heather Maher and RFE/RL's Armenian Service contributed to this report

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