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Abu Leila Halabi, by his own account a citizen journalist inside Syria, reports that in the battle for Aleppo, long-time Christian communities are caught in the middle of a political conflict that threatens to turn into a sectarian war. Among the Christian communities, Armenian leaders steadfastly insist they remain neutral in spite of being caught between the hammer of the revolution and the anvil of the regime. Read his account further below.

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By Abu Leila Halabi, Aleppo, September 22, 2012

Random bombs fall on Aleppo’s Christian neighborhoods of al-Midan, al-Suleimanieh and al-Azizieh, and the fighting comes closer to the heart of the one of the oldest centers of Christianity in the Middle East.

None of the warring parties are listening to each other. The problem is that neither side can tolerate minorities coming to terms with the other side. Syria’s Christians face a badly arranged marriage and will have to endure it until the rifles are silenced and cooler heads prevail.

Purported video of FSA fighters engaged in a street battle in al-Midan

Armenians articulate minority dilemma

Among all the communities in Syria’s largest city and the center of the nation economic pulse is the Armenian community, perhaps the best organized, internationally well-connected and among the most vocal Christian minority communities in the region.

The Armenian community formed several aid committees to help its members, and its leadership adopted a policy of “positive neutrality” toward the Aleppo’s conflict. Nevertheless, the community leadership has been intolerant of diversity of thought or opinion.

Since the start of the uprising, most Christian communities had followers who sympathized with the revolutionary ideals of the rebels. Some of them were actively engaged in combat and support operations. Most Christian minorities have representation in the Syrian National Council, but not the Armenians.

“Armenian leaders prefer to put all of their eggs in the ‘neutrality basket.’” – Abu Leila Halabi

One reason Armenians have not supported the expatriate opposition may be that Turkey, their historic foe, sponsors the movement.  But this can’t entirely explain why the Armenian community hasn’t tolerated members opening independent lines of communication with other opposition or “third way” factions. Armenian leaders prefer to put all of their eggs in the “neutrality basket.”

The recent violent turn of events in Aleppo and recent developments makes it harder for the Armenian community’s leaders to continue their neutral position: a few dozens of Armenian young men have accepted the offer of Assad regime guns and joined the ranks of its shabiha gangs. Maybe with good intentions…

Armenians caught in the middle

The few who have joined the shabiha have not saved the lives or homes of minorities, and especially Armenians; bombs and artillery shells continue to fall. In one case, a bomb fell on a residential building killing a young Armenian woman. In a separate incident, another bomb fell on a residential building in the heavily middle-class Christian al-Villat Street neighborhood, causing major property damage but no deaths.

Many times, the cause is indiscriminate firing of rockets and bombs in Christian communities by ill-trained Free Syrian Army soldiers aimed at government security buildings. On the other hand, a better-trained and equipped regime air force pilot in a MIG shelled the main water pipe of the city near al-Midan, disrupting the water supply and causing shortages in most of the city for several days.

Purported video of flooding following shelling of water main

Recently, four Armenians were killed when driving from the airport into the city. Thirteen were wounded. The first reports blamed the FSA for the incident. But later, eyewitnesses said that it was the driver’s fault, because he failed to stop at a checkpoint. A few days later, an FSA brigade denied responsibility and said Assad forces shot them.

Rebels on the edge of al-Midan

Last week, FSA brigades were at the edge of al-Midan, and tried to break into the neighborhood. They made a sortie in the direction of the St. Vartan, a Jesuit monastery where a large number of refugees and relief workers are based.

The government replied with great force. Armenians and other nearby Christians took refuge in other neighborhoods until the regime forces smashed the rebels with tanks, heavy bombardment and air strikes. Rebels seized large parts of the strategically located Hanano army barracks for a short period of time. The barracks are only a kilometer away from al-Suleimanieh, the another Christian neighborhood.

Purported video of Hanano barracks in rubble

While battles rage, there still seems to be no substantive or meaningful communication between the FSA and the Christian communities.

Why do the rebels want control of al-Midan?

A senior FSA liaison told me they have no clear-cut plan for the battle of Aleppo. The question then is, what does the Free Syrian Army gain from entering the Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo? Up until now, they have been “welcomed” in the neighborhoods that supported mass anti-government demonstrations. There were no street protests in the Christian neighborhoods; and aggressive rebel moves on Christian neighborhoods might bring negative publicity to the FSA.  Of course, that would only matter if international supporters of the opposition were interested in human rights and minorities.

Armenian leaders politely refused an offer by the government to arm them, basically because they knew that this sort of help doesn’t come for free. Armenian leaders understood that such moves are more about control and that they would drag Armenians into one side of the conflict, rather than offer them protection and security from both sides.

The Syrian government has more than one way to skin a fish. Two weeks ago, the government-run Syrian State News channel reported with great fanfare that a group of jihadists in the Zamalka neighborhood of Damascus executed Armenians for sectarian reasons.

Later that same day, the same new channel denied the account without explanation. The sectarian panic that results from such disinformation can only help the regime create and fuel hatred and recruit as many people from minorities as it can to actively fight on its side.

On the other hand, the Free Syrian Army demands that Armenians condemn those who fight on the regime’s side and insist they turn in those who cooperate with shabiha gangs.

The challenge of staying neutral in a war

The “positive neutrality” policy adopted by the Armenian leadership might be the wisest choice right now, but as Free Syrian Army soldiers fight face-to-face with some Armenians and other Christians beyond community control and serving in shabiha ranks, the talk of “positive neutrality” makes little sense and could foment a sectarian backlash. Some Armenian leaders claim that establishing contacts with the Free Syrian Army is similar to being set up for a blind date. The fragmented and often poorly coordinated groups of rebels are a very chaotic and confusing negotiating party. They say that it would be difficult to come to any agreement with many of the rebel forces and that risking any such agreement would likely cause a hostile reaction from regime forces, with whom Armenians have had decades of friendly relations, and most likely, still have in one way or another.

“Some Armenian leaders claim that establishing contacts with the Free Syrian Army is similar to being set up for a blind date.” – Abu Leila Halabi

It’s not just that fighting units are not under any central command, but Armenians doubt that commanders can effectively maintain discipline among enthusiastic and fundamentalist volunteers and recently arrived radical Islamist foreign fighters.

For the past two weeks Free Syrian Army officers and other opposition groups have issued assurances they would not harm Christian minorities, and called on them to join the revolutionary struggle of the Syrian people.

Rebels threaten to take Christian neighborhoods

Free Syrian Army brigades have moved toward Aleppo’s Christian neighborhoods, including the Armenian neighborhood of al-Midan. However, very few people in the Christian and Armenian neighborhoods of Aleppo have taken those announcements seriously.

In August, a group of 48 of Aleppo’s Sunni elite who call themselves the “Front of Aleppo Islamic Scholars” (FAIS) called for the advance.

The announcement was signed by Ibrahim Abdullah al-Salqini, the grandson of the former Mufti of Aleppo Ibrahim al-Salqini, who passed away a year ago. The mufti’s funeral turned into an anti-government demonstration that was launched from the Grand Mosque in the heart of the Old City of Aleppo.

The announcement asked the leadership of the Christian community to “condemn the Assad regime publicly for its crimes, to turn its back on the Syrian army and security forces, not take arms from them, and instead support the FSA.” The FAIS declaration also demanded that the Christian community turn over a list of those who have cooperated with the security forces, or joined the shabiha.

Christian bishops insist on peace through dialogue

The condescending tone of the announcement compelled the Christian bishops of Aleppo to jointly issue a counter-declaration, insisting on the importance of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and diversity.

The bishops called for an “end to the violence and the building of peace through dialogue.” Nevertheless, the bishops echoed a few demands by the FSA, such as “condemning every kind of armament in or around churches.”

Two days later the Supreme Council of the Syrian Revolution Command acknowledged that there were “some … members of the Armenian community, who are participating in fighting the rebels.” But a few days later, the council’s Brigadier General Moustafa al-Sheikh called the announcement a “media fabrication” and promised that the rebel command had no ill intentions toward Syria’s Armenians, “not now, and not in the future.”

The next day the commander of the Military Council of Aleppo, Colonel Abdul Jabbar al-Agidi, condemned sectarianism and called minorities an inseparable part of the Syrian people in an online interview on YouTube.

In another note, when FSA brigades seized the Bustan al-Basha neighborhood two weeks ago, the Armenian community decided not to evacuate residents of its nursing home. Perhaps this was a gesture of trust toward the opposition rebels. The rebels apparently got the message, and were content to only put the three-star flag of the revolution on the building.

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 SYRIA WITNESS: In Battle for Aleppo, Armenians Seek Neutral Ground

David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.