BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
From The Armenian Weekly
I don’t have any ambitions to bring something more or new to what has already been said about the crisis in Syria. So much has been written that it seems redundant even to add a single line. Yet, we have no choice: The war in Syria and its inevitable and often unanticipated consequences touches us, Armenians, all over the planet.
We have to return and return to it, because as the war unfolds with renewed fervor, up into the light surfaces all of those long-silenced and unresolved issues, the massive geopolitical entanglement that has had the greater Middle East in its grip for almost a century.
A list of peoples and nations have been waiting for an opening, a chance to reshuffle everything—allies, foes, borders, alignments. The threat of total war in the region has been on the horizon for decades; one could even say that Iranians, Turks, Arabs, Kurds, (Armenians?) and a whole range of minorities have now woken up after a long drawn-out wait, in anticipation of the right time and opportunity, and they have been doing this since the infamous Picot-Sykes Agreement. That agreement gave birth to the map of the Middle East we are familiar with today. (Named after its two negotiators, the French Georges Picot and the British Sir Mark Sykes, the agreement was a secret understanding made between France and Britain in 1916 regarding the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.)
Why should this be of special interest to us Armenians? After all, the re-ordering of the region has been going on for at least a decade now.
This time, however, the war in Syria and its potential repercussions risk over-turning the “familiar” world we have learned to live with; and it promises a broader re-ordering of the region in which Kurdish aspirations are just one part of a very complex picture.
Many of the problems in the present-day Middle East are traced to the Sykes-Picot map, which introduced the state system to the region. The Armenian, Palestine, and Kurdish Questions are cases in point. The current swelling uproar and revolts have exposed the fragility of the security system and geopolitical order that were inflicted upon the region.
The national borders of the region’s countries do not correspond to the communities’ differing identity narratives. Yet, how genuine is the interest and engagement of the international community in redrawing the map?
The events on the ground in Syria, what happened in Iraq and Lebanon, show that the parties will fight to the end in order to avoid a re-mapping of the region. What must be added to the major actors’ perspective is stability and untouchable borders. Syria will show where the line is drawn for tolerance, or the lack of tolerance.
What is interesting for us Armenians is not how or in what ways President Assad and his regime will perish, but rather what will happen when it collapses. Syria’s downfall will probably bring down the “whole temple.” As Assad falls down, he will bring down with him as many as possible. That will leave us with an uncertain future for decades to come, while the repercussions of the downfall produce a volatile region being nurtured by prolonged instability.
Some believe that exporting chaos will be the name of the game. And that the consequences of the possible shake-up of the uncertain political and social structures will reverberate across the entire region, engulfing not only a future fragmented Syria, but also Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, and likely the South Caucasus.
What does this chaos mean and how will the new security structure borne from this chaos inform our future as a nation living in its midst?
Can we make predictions? Can we prepare ourselves for the unforeseen, although we all know that predictions are always tricky?
Across the world, Armenians outside and inside Armenia have been struck by fear. Fear is the passion that blurs judgment. And in a naive way, we have mainly focused on a specific aspect of the conflict, that is, the security of the Armenian community in Syria. In an attempt to alleviate our fears we have called for immediate action for our blood brothers. While this reaction is understandable and reasonable, the analysis of the needs of the Armenians in Syria indicates that their needs are not immediate (in comparison to the typical needs of refugees regarding food supplies, accommodations, and so on).
What is in great need is the picture of the future, an outlook of possibilities, scenarios, and adequate solutions. The conflict in Syria is unfolding in ways unknown, and our duty is to look into the eye of the storm and make sense of what is to come.
The remapping of the region and the prospect of a new Kurdish state sets the security of the Armenian Diaspora in the Middle East and Armenia’s national security on totally new premises. The entire area is a patchwork of sectarian and ethnic enclaves that has seen bursts of religiously motivated violence many times before. That violence could reach us, directly or indirectly. The obvious question, then, that we need to ask ourselves is: Do we, as a collective, as a nation, have any chance to become a player on the ground while the new security order is being engineered? What we have to realize, and act in accordance of, is that the new order could be enticed in spite of us, and to our detriment.
Questions such as “Will the Kurds in Syria be allowed to break away, as they were allowed to do in Northern Iraq?” ceases to be just a mental exercise.
What are the implications of the obvious trend of the empowerment of Kurds?
How will it be used? Will it be used, as previously, as a way of weakening states—Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria? The Kurdish dimension of this conflict is likely to become a dominant factor in the near future because of the weakening of each of the states in which the Kurds live. During the last decade, it has been difficult for the Turkish and Iraqi states to curb the Kurds, and cooperation among them for restricting Kurdish aspirations is at the moment non-existent. At the same time, and not be overlooked, is that the Kurds have proven their loyalty and lack of religious radicalism to the West. Could the latter decide to support them? The several dimensions of the Kurdish issue will likely create a real trouble spot in the region, which can threaten ignition at any moment.
Yet, Armenians and Armenia still do not recognize the Syrian crisis and its repercussions as a national security threat. We must ask: In what ways will Armenia be affected if and when Israel attacks Iran? What will happen to our nuclear power facilities? What will happen if we are faced with an influx of Armenians (and Iranians) from Iran? What will happen to our immediate and future security options if suddenly we have a new neighbor to the east, the state of Kurdistan? Are we prepared for an emboldened Turkey crossing borders, bombing? What will happen if Azerbaijan decides to attack in an attempt to profit form the chaos?
We have not created mechanisms that address the dynamics of the Middle East and the rapidly developing challenges, some visible but mostly invisible. Who ultimately identifies the regional threats to our security? The Armenian National Security Council has proven to be a total failure, a toothless institution. The government’s handlings show that consciously or unconsciously we have freed ourselves from responsibility, seeking redemption elsewhere; in the minds of Armenia’s statesmen and Diasporan Armenians, the assessment of regional risks are to be dealt with by the Collective Security Treaty Organization and/or NATO—security instruments that are outside our own.
Although the national security strategy of the Republic of Armenia recognizes the “decline of the national and cultural identity of the Armenian Diaspora” as a threat to its national security, we still have not put in place the appropriate mechanisms to address the imminent dangers that we face as a collective.
The Syrian war and how we’ve dealt with it until now indicates that decision-making is running in parallel with the daily developments on the field; even then it is mostly addressing minor issues, such as the issue of a small group of Armenians from Syria seeking refuge in their homeland. (To understand how little Armenia has actually done, watch the interview with Arman Yeghiazaryan, the director of repatriation and research of the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12CjdWSuP9I&feature=player_embedded#!)
Under the pressure of fear of the unknown, we are oblivious to some very serious failings. Unfortunately, the Armenian state policy on national security and the supposedly adequate mechanisms did not pass the test of the Syrian challenge. The Syrian war became our ultimate litmus test: It exposed our policy shortcomings not only on national security, but also on our unpreparedness pertaining to legal procedures, crisis management, humanitarian aid, and specifically, resource management. The Syrian Armenian community is the responsibility of not just one agency in Armenia (the ministry of diaspora) but the whole apparatus, government, and society at large.
We have failed to address the needs of the Armenian community in Syria. The same ambiguity and fear has also invaded the diaspora. We do not know what is to be done. We too have been defenders of the status quo, calling for allegiance, imprisoned inside the restricted outlook—a framework that sees only the immediate present.
But most importantly we have failed in projecting our interests within the new security environment and marking out our new goals.
Suzanne Khardalian is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Armenian-language newspapers.