According to Rober Koptas, who observed the lives of Armenians in Aleppo amid the clashes, Syrian-Armenians will refuse to come to Turkey until the very last moment.
We spoke with Rober Koptas, the editor-in-chief of (Istanbul’s Armenian-language daily) AGOS. Koptas was among the journalists who visited Syria.
Koptas said Armenians who are caught between these two fires (pro- and anti-Assad fighters) prefer to go to Lebanon and Armenia because of their fear of Turkey. There are reports that many Armenians abandoned their homes in Homs after a looting spree there. Koptas thinks many of the Armenians in Aleppo will try to stay at their homes until the last moment in spite of many abductions and ransom demands.
Radikal You say the Armenian population of Aleppo, which was about 80,000 in the past, has shrunk to 40,000 to 50,000 in last 30 years. Why are Armenians, who had good relations with the Assad regime, running away?
Koptas To escape is the fate of all Middle Eastern Armenians. After the 1915 genocide, the first stop of the Armenians fleeing Anatolia was the Middle East, actually Aleppo. From there they scattered to all over the world. There were substantial Armenian communities in Syria and Lebanon.
But when the Middle East did not stabilize in the 20th century and Armenians were forced to live as a minority, they emigrated to the West where they felt more secure. After the Gulf Wars, there are almost no Christians left in Iraq. The situation in Iran is bit different because Armenians were living there prior to 1915, but many did leave after the Islamic Revolution. Cultural, political and economic factors could also have contributed to their decisions.
Those who could afford it moved to France and the US. There has been much immigration to Canada in recent years. The Armenian community in Aleppo had a highly developed social status and economy in the past, but those days are gone. This played a part in their emigration. Nevertheless, despite the oppressive features of the Assad regime, Armenians felt safer under that regime. In Syria, compared to Muslims, Christians are more privileged. But many left anyway.
Radikal Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora says citizenship applications of 4,000 Armenians from Syria have been approved. But it is said that this return is not permanent. How do you see this influx to Armenia?
Koptas The figure could be misleading. It is nothing new. The Armenian constitution was amended in 2007 to give diaspora Armenians the right of dual citizenship. That doesn’t mean they have to live in Armenia. That is why it could be misleading to see this as proof of permanent immigration.
According to the Armenian Consulate in Aleppo, in recent months it issued visas to 5,000 Aleppo Armenians. This is about 10% of the total community; not a small ratio. But departures are temporary for the time being. Some go for a month or two, some go for a year. Those with children go for the school year.
Most of these are well-to-do people. A plane ticket is not cheap and Armenia is more expensive than Syria. They go but keep an eye on the situation in Syria to decide accordingly. It is possible that because of the violence raging in Syria, very few might be willing to stay there.
When there is peace or a temporary ceasefire, this population will be further reduced by half or more. They can’t leave now because of the uncertainty. They cannot sell their homes and business with favorable conditions at the moment. They keep on living in Aleppo hoping that all will be well.
Radikal How long do you think those in Aleppo will stay on?
Koptas Many will wait for the last moment. This is a passive resistance because Armenians have announced that they won’t take up arms. The state offered them weapons but they refused to accept them. Clashes are now spreading into Armenian districts but many will wait for the outcome.
In general, women and children have left and men are guarding their homes and businesses. They are afraid of looting. At the last moment many people will seek ways to escape to the nearest refuge. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Turkey will accept Armenian refugees. But this is not the choice of Armenians. Many are not thinking of coming to Turkey initially. Many will be upset if they have no other choice. But, as I see it, in an emergency they will have no other choice.
Radikal Why are they going to Armenia and Lebanon instead of Turkey?
Koptas They are the people of this land. Many are from Malatya, Antep, Urfa and Maras. They have civil associations named after their origins. But let’s not forget these are the grandchildren of a generation that came to Syria after losing their families in 1915 or enduring hardships. They have a long memory. They are afraid of Turkey because Turkey still has a policy of denying (the genocide of) 1915.
They are also angry and Turkey’s current policy will not soothe that anger. They see Turkey as following a course that will turn the entire region upside down. They don’t find Davutoglu’s declarations convincing. That is why it is not enough to say, “We will open our borders, they will be our guests.”
Armenians fear this will be used as propaganda. Turkey has to give a more meaningful message that those who will come will not be guests but owners of homes. This is also Turkey’s human obligation.
Radikal What is the situation of those who came to Turkey?
Koptas There are some who came as tourists with their passports. Everyday we get messages at AGOS asking for assistance. Until now, there are not many who came but we can predict an increase. Some of them have relatives in Turkey. Vakiflikoy in Hatay, (Turkey,) where Armenians live and Syria’s Kesap have close ties. There was an increase in back-and-forth visits before the events. There are some who think they can be comfortable in Turkey but not many. Unless there is major humanitarian drama, I don’t think there will be change in the idea of not coming to Turkey. But ideas and practice don’t always mesh and they might have to come. We have to be ready for that.
Radikal What is the attitude of Syrian opposition to Armenians?
Koptas You have to divide Aleppo in two. There are those who sympathize with the opposition, even joining them. Certain neighborhoods are under opposition control. The center of Aleppo by and large supports the regime. The Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army have said several times that they have nothing against the Christians. But the opposition is not unified.
There are those among them who are against Christians. The regime also manipulates this type of incident. For example there was a report that six Armenians in Aleppo had their throats slit by the opposition. Many websites reported it without verifying the information, but the Armenian Embassy in Damascus denied it. This type of news scares the Armenians.
I haven’t heard anything to confirm the opposition is directly acting against the Armenians. Until now, about 10 Armenians have lost their lives in these incidents. Two of them were among the pro-regime Shabiha militiamen and were killed in clashes. There are also some killed by stray bullets or bombs falling on Armenian areas. There have been abductions. Seven or eight Armenians have been kidnapped by the opposition or unidentified groups — usually for ransom.
We know there are groups within the opposition or gang, tribes, organizations that are trying to benefit from the chaos. Armenians are afraid of this. They are caught in the middle. The regime wants the minorities to be afraid of the opposition. There are groups within the opposition whose behavior magnifies such fears.
Radikal How do you see the future for the Armenians should Assad step down?
Koptas This is impossible to predict. People’s biggest bane is the uncertainty. I am among those who think that the opposition has the right motive. I think the Baath regime should not exist in today’s world. But the opposition shouldn’t have armed. Their arming prolonged the life of the regime. Even if the regime doesn’t collapse and enters into negotiations, there will be a new Syria. In the long run I am dreaming of a pluralist and democratic country with a diversified sectarian, religion, lingual and ethnic structure.