A video from Syria that emerged on Monday has caught the media’s attention, if only for its bizarreness. The video shows two members of Los Angeles street gangs manning a regime position, flashing signs and talking almost in a caricature of the already farcical jargon of L.A. gangs. Of particular interest is that one of them is Armenian. And although his is an extreme case, it is nevertheless representative of how we tend to look at Syria’s minorities.
From the very beginning of the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration has used the issue of Syria’s minorities to justify its failure to pursue US interests through its inaction against the Assad regime. It encouraged the view that held Syrian minority communities as a bloc of passive fence sitters awaiting the opposition to “reach out” to them. Thus, as early as December 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was lecturing the opposition that “a democratic transition is more than removing the Assad regime,” and urging it “to broaden its outreach to Syrians from minority communities who are afraid the country will descend into civil war if Assad is ousted.”
This line persists to this day. During a talk last Saturday, shortly after stepping down as US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford repeated this conceit. He argued that minorities would desert the Assad regime if only the opposition would reach out to them. “The sooner the opposition does that, the faster Assad’s support base will crumble,” he said. In other words, the US is waiting on the opposition. The White House will not act to pursue US interests because, it reasons, the opposition cannot get its act together and crumble Assad’s base by coaxing minorities into joining it.
It's difficult not to conclude that this is merely yet another excuse for the US to stay on the sidelines. And it also shows that the administration has a faulty understanding of the interests and calculations of Syria's minority communities. While attitudes among the minority communities do vary, some are not just pushed into siding with the lesser of evils, but rather are making active choices to align themselves with Assad and his allies. To be sure, some Syrian-Armenian organizations immediately distanced themselves from the gang members, saying that they don’t represent the Armenian community or have any real connection to it. This is understandable and expected. But the positions inside the Armenian community, as in others, have been varied and have evolved over the last two years.
The Armenians first came into the picture in the uprising with the rebel offensive to seize Aleppo in the summer of 2012. The regime sought to recruit Aleppo’s Armenians, offering to arm them and to recruit them into its “popular committees.” The reactions were mixed. At the time, Armenian Church leaders from three denominations issued a statement rejecting participation in the violence. Yet, despite this official statement of neutrality, some activists acknowledged that many Armenian men in Aleppo had taken up the regime’s offer, even if on their own initiative. Others who did pick up arms still expressed concern about being used by the regime and becoming legitimate targets for the rebels. As one Armenian armed man put it, “We want to live in peace or leave. We are a minority in this country and cannot face the Muslim majority.”
Indeed, thousands have left – some to Lebanon and others, ten thousand or more, to Armenia. But others, however few, did not share this prudence and opted to carry arms and fight. The gang member in the video, identified as Nerses Kilajian, although an odd case, represents the far end of the spectrum. As Kilajian’s Facebook page (which now seems to have been closed down) shows, he has extended family in Syria. So he is not quite an outlier, however bizarre his case may be. In addition, he has posted a picture of a poster for a fallen Armenian fighter – not a gang member – indicating that such elements continue to exist, though their number is unclear.
What's more, such paramilitary auxiliary units work directly with and/or under the command of Hezbollah officers. Kilajian’s Facebook pictures show him in the company of Hezbollah members, and donning a Hezbollah uniform and paraphernalia. Of note is a picture Kilajian posted of a fighter wearing a Hezbollah scarf and stepping on a Turkish flag. It’s true that the regime in 2012 was telling the Armenians of Aleppo that the Turks were sending the rebels after them, playing on old fears and grievances. However, the active choices of those who decide to fight with Assad and under Hezbollah’s command reflect not just identity politics, but also broader alignments.
For example, it is not news that a large chunk of Christians in Lebanon, including the major Armenian party, are aligned with Hezbollah and pro-Assad parties. These choices, while primarily driven by domestic considerations, may also have wider extensions. For example, Armenia has allied with Iran to counter Turkey and Azerbaijan, with whom it has had a longstanding territorial conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. As part of the Iran-Armenia relationship, Yerevan has helped Tehran skirt sanctions.
Of course, none of this is meant to single out the Armenians – or, for that matter, any minority group in Syria – or to conflate them with thugs. It is rather to show that minorities cannot be approached as passive monolithic blocs. Their members make active choices – sometimes ugly choices that put them in opposition to US interests. There’s been a dangerous view in Washington that approaches the issue of Syria’s minorities – namely the Christians – and the question of whether the US should support the opposition to topple Assad, from the angle of co-sectarian sentiment. This position would align US policy with the preferences of Middle Eastern Christians, as Christians. Such a position, which dovetails with how the administration has used the minorities issue, clouds strategic judgment.
A secular, inclusive Syria is the ideal, but it’s not the primary US interest. Likewise, a minority group, Christian or otherwise, doesn’t automatically translate into alignment with US interests in the region, or even US values. Confusion on this point could lead to embarrassment, as happened with the recent delegation of Syrian-Christian clergymen that came to Washington and pressed lawmakers against aiding the opposition. And while they railed against the regime's regional adversaries, the clergymen didn't utter a word against Assad. As my NOW colleague Michael Weiss reported, members of the delegation had in the not-so-distant past expressed support for Hezbollah.
The administration’s argument that what’s missing in Syria is for the opposition to present a “platform” that reassures minorities is disingenuous; as is prioritizing the issue of minorities, but not the mass slaughter of Sunnis. To be sure, the opposition’s shortcomings are real, but the administration is merely hiding behind them to avoid pursuing US interests.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.