Syrian-Armenian Exit Strategy

Ted Tourian LLM, Sacramento, 25 November 2012

Armenians in Syria need an exit strategy. The Armenians need to leave Syria before the situation further deteriorates, which could result in the largest genocidal policy towards Armenians since the 1980's, where Azerbaijani authorities carried out pogroms against the Armenian populations in Sumgait and Baku.[1] The implementation of an exit strategy does not end by helping Armenians flee Syria, but also on the ability to sustain Armenian refugees afterwards. Consideration must be given to the following criteria: convincing Armenians in Syria to flee Syria; where Armenians fleeing Syria can get refugee status; where Armenians fleeing Syria can get employment in order to sustain themselves; and where Armenians fleeing Syria can go to protect their own unique culture.

An Armenian Church After Bombing

Ted Tourian LLM, Sacramento, 25 November 2012

Armenians in Syria need an exit strategy. The Armenians need to leave Syria before the situation further deteriorates, which could result in the largest genocidal policy towards Armenians since the 1980's, where Azerbaijani authorities carried out pogroms against the Armenian populations in Sumgait and Baku.[1] The implementation of an exit strategy does not end by helping Armenians flee Syria, but also on the ability to sustain Armenian refugees afterwards. Consideration must be given to the following criteria: convincing Armenians in Syria to flee Syria; where Armenians fleeing Syria can get refugee status; where Armenians fleeing Syria can get employment in order to sustain themselves; and where Armenians fleeing Syria can go to protect their own unique culture.

An Armenian Church After Bombing

I Necessity for an Exit Strategy for Syrian-Armenians

Currently, there are at least 60,000 ethnic Armenians living in Syria.[2] For the most part, Armenians have stayed neutral to the sectarian violence engulfing Syria.[3] The ability of the Armenians to defend themselves in Syria is not feasible. Currently, the only real fighting force defending Armenians are Armenians themselves; merchants, who have been given munitions by a retreating Syrian Army.[4]

Contrasting the civilian Armenian population defending themselves is the "Free Syrian Army" (FSA). The FSA is largely composed of foreign fighters, coming from places like Afghanistan, Chechnya, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.[5] These fighters are trained in Turkey.[6] These countries have continually engaged in some form of anti-Armenianism, and it would be naïve to think that if given the chance, soldiers from these countries would abstain from a policy of exterminating Armenians.[7]

In recent weeks, the FSA has directed its ire towards Armenians. For instance, the FSA targeted and destroyed St. Gevorg church in Aleppo's Armenian-populated district of Nor Kyugh.[8] Armenians are targeted by the FSA for their historical allegiance to the Assad regime:[9]

Nine Christian men, including seven ethnic Armenians, were ordered off the bus while the gunmen checked IDs, according to Mark, who was mistaken as the driver's assistant and spared interrogation.

"Get off. You're with Bashar too," they told a Kurdish man who tried to intervene, referring to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. (Emphasis added.)

The former Armenian ambassador to Lebanon, Arman Navasardyan, has already warned that if Bashar al-Assad's regime falls, Armenians in Syria face a “St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre” if they are not evacuated.[10] These recent events bring Navasardyan's prediction much closer to fruition.

II Implementation of an Exit Strategy

The implementation of an exit strategy is complicated. The following section discusses the necessary steps that must be considered in order to implement a successful exit strategy for Armenians in Syria:[11] a) convincing Armenians in and out of Syria that leaving Syria is necessary; b) procedural considerations concerning potential new destinations for Armenian refugees; c) sustaining Armenian refugees outside Syria; and d) protecting the unique culture of Syrian Armenians. Ultimately, executing a successful exit strategy is more art than science.

  1. Convincing Armenians In and Out of Syria that Leaving Syria is Necessary:

A successful exit strategy is as much dependant on the will of those fleeing. It is absolutely necessary to get Armenians in Syria to recognize the importance of leaving Syria, even if it means leaving behind homes, businesses, or a life that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Convincing any potential refugee to flee requires the upmost sensitivity especially when that potential refugee may be blinded by the aforementioned attachments.

This is the current dilemma facing Armenians in Syria today: would we rather die in Syria, or move somewhere else?[12] Convincing a person to leave a home, a business that their grandparents started after the genocide is not easy,[13] but necessary in order to avoid a worse fate that waits for any minority if Bashar al-Assad’s government is toppled.

Equally difficult is convincing outside Armenian institutions that the time has come for Armenians in Syria to leave. For instance, would the Republic of Armenia welcome mass migration of one of the strongest Armenian Diaspora’s?[14] Mass migration of the Armenian Syrian Diaspora weakens the Republic of Armenia’s potential relations with Syria both during and at the conclusion of the war.[15] Are traditional organizations like the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) or the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in favor of evacuating Armenians in Syria when such organizations have substantial properties in Syria? Who better to be caretakers of its properties than Armenians armed with a slingshot, refusing to leave Syria, while an FSA-like Goliath trained by professional Turkish forces bears down?[16]

Decisions to let go of the material are difficult. Individuals leaving everything behind, and the institutions tasked with serving the Armenian nation, must ask what Ruskin asks "[n]ow, as he was sinking, had he [sunk] the gold? Or had the gold [sunk] him?"

  1. Procedural Considerations Concerning Potential New Destinations for Armenian Refugees:

Discussion has already been made of where potential Armenian refugees should move: Akhalkalaki;[17] Armenia;[18] Cyprus;[19] Lebanon;[20] the Republic of Nagarno-Karbagh;[21] and the west.[22] Each destination offers its own positives and negatives.

In order for a successful exit strategy to take place, procedural considerations need to be adhered to. This includes securing visa and passport requirements. Recently, the Republic of Armenia has eased visa and passport requirements for Armenians fleeing sectarian violence in Syria, and neighboring countries.[23] However, entry requirements with respect to other countries have not been simplified. For instance, an Armenian refugee leaving for Cyprus does not need a passport provided they have the necessary documents issued to stateless persons and recognized refugees.[24] How does a Syrian-Armenian refugee become recognized as a refugee in Cyprus? These procedural obstacles can be a nightmare, especially for Syrian-Armenians facing sectarian violence, or Armenian Diaspora organizations ill-equiped to deal with legalese, and are looking to help evacuate Syrian-Armenians.

Fortunately, potential Armenian refugees and Armenian Diaspora organizations trying to mobilize can rely on the Armenian Bar Association (ABA). The ABA recently wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, advocating the plight of Armenians in Syria.[25] In describing itself as “the largest organized group of Armenian Diasporan attorneys, judges and law students in the world,” and showing continued concern for the plight of Armenians in Syria,[26] Armenian organizations should not hesitate to contact the ABA and request pro bono assistance with respect to any potential legal barriers that exist in evacuating Armenians facing sectarian strife.[27]

  1. Sustaining Armenian Refugees Outside Syria:

The next question is sustaining Armenian refugees outside Syria. The Armenian government has already taken several positive steps forward. For instance, the Armenian government has recently exempted taxation of Armenians fleeing Syria,[28] and offered to provide Armenians fleeing Syria with apartments and jobs.[29] This is in stark contrast to help Armenia was initially providing, where Armenians fleeing Syria “coincidentally” saw a 20 percent increase in housing prices when seeking refuge in Armenia.[30]

However, labor mobility will become the biggest difficulty. For instance, some reports state that there are 10,000 Armenian jewelers potentially leaving Syria.[31] Armenia, already a country known for jewelers, recently saw a 60 percent drop of sales in diamond polishing.[32] Realistically speaking, Armenia cannot afford more jewelers flooding its already declining market.

If Armenians fleeing Syria repatriate to Akhalkalaki, Armenia, or the Republic of Nagarno-Karabagh, questions needing to be addressed are what skill sets do these refugees possess that can make them useful members of their new society? Can their skills be transferred to their potential new homes? Are there options to train refugee Armenians with a new skill-set to make them valuable to their potential new homes?

Most Armenian Diaspora organizations have allocated resources on the presumption that Armenians in Syria must remain in Syria. A quick search of aid efforts reveals that all help received by Syrian-Armenians is designed to ensure that the Armenian population in Syria remains in Syria: the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) has focused its charitable donations to cover the tuitions of students in order to alleviate the financial burden to be faced by parents and, at the same time, to fund schools;[33] AGBU has provided relief with food, medicine, shelter, water and energy to thousands of Armenian families in various cities, with local youth from our Chapters mobilizing as volunteers;[34] the Syrian Armenian Relief Fund's assistance will be used for food, medicine, temporary shelter, emergency medical and other critical humanitarian expenses by the united committees established by the Syrian-Armenian communities in accordance with local needs.[35]

All aid is important concerning the plight of Syrian-Armenians. It cannot be stressed enough that this article is not intended to slight in any way, any group helping Syrian-Armenians. What this article hopefully tries to do is state that allocating resources to ensure Armenians stay in Syria is not efficient.[36] As discussed above, if Bashar al-Assad’s regime falls, there is a very strong possibility ethnic Armenians will be subject to the worst pogroms since Sumgait. The result will be that aid initially assigned for the purposes of ensuring the Armenian population remains in Syria will have gone to waste. Only the Armenian government will have tried to hedge its bets by trying to accommodate Syrian-Armenian refugees.

  1. Protection of the Unique Culture of Syrian Armenians:

Syrian-Armenian culture is steeped in history and tradition. Kesab has been an Armenian center, shielding Armenians from Ottoman Turk persecutions. Aleppo has been a historic Armenian Diaspora city, with many middle class Armenians.[37] The Syrian-Armenian community “has been a crucible that has forged many great leaders for the diaspora.”[38] Any potential recommended migrations must take into account the uniqueness of the Armenians living in Syria. The following section provides examples of locations and considerations that need to be taken into account

Akhalkalaki and the Republic of Nagarno-Karbagh are suitable for Armenians in Syria who come from villages like Yacoubiyah or Kesab. Armenians from larger cities like Damascus or Aleppo could be absorbed in Yerevan. However, relying only on Yerevan would be detrimental. With respect to Syrian Armenians en masse fleeing to Armenia, ARF Bureau representative Hrant Markarian said it best that Armenia may not be able to fully absorb all Syrian Armenian migrants: “Let’s be fair and recognize that unfortunately our country is not the sort of country that can handle a large number of refugees.”[39]

Relocation is also possible to other near-east countries such as Cyprus. Cyprus already has some infrastructure ready to help absorb fleeing Armenians, such as the currently unused Melkonian Educational Institute. However, full absorption of Armenian refugees to Cyprus may not be feasible due to the relatively higher value of the Euro as compared to the Syrian pound, which might further erode the living standards of Syrian-Armenian refugees. Furthermore, migration of Syrian-Armenians to western countries comes with the risk of “white genocide.”[40]

[7] For instance, Afghanistani Mujahadeen and Chechen fighters were enlisted to fight ethnic Armenians in the Republic of Nagarno Karabagh, and its quest for self-determination (; Yossef Bodansky (2008). Chechen Jihad: Al Qaeda's Training Ground and the Next Wave of Terror (reprint ed.). HarperCollins. p. 36. ISBN 0-06-142977-5. Retrieved 14 August 2011.); Pakistan is the only country in the world that does not recognize Armenia's independence in protest over the Republic of Nagarno Karabagh's victory of self-determination (; Saudi Arabia and Armenia do not have diplomatic relations (; It is historical fact that the Ottoman Empire (precursor to the Republic of Turkey) committed genocide against Armenians (


(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

[11] It should be kept in mind that this analysis is a blue-print, and subject to change should the situation demand it.

[16] David does not always beat Goliath.

[19] (Cyprus says it’s ready to evacuate refugees from Syria; not just Armenians.)

[20] (Syrians en masse leaving for Lebanon; not just Armenians.)

[22] For instance, Canada pushing Syrians who have family in Canada to immigrate to Canada (; Switzerland is accepting Syrian refugees (; pressure being put on the European Union to accept more Syrian refugees (; Canada pushing Syrians who have family in Canada to immigrate to Canada (;

[27] Refusing to provide pro bono assistance in such circumstances would be tantamount to making the ABA’s letter to the UN Secretary General meaningless.

[36] It should be noted that Armenian charitable organizations making the decision to allocate resources on the presumption that Armenians in Syria remain in Syria was probably made before the FSA began directing operations against Armenians.


  1. Syria Not Azerbaijan…

    I take issue with Ted Tourian in drawing a parallel between the pogroms of Sumgait and the likely state of  Armenians in Syria. The comparison in his introductory paragraph laid the ground to his argument for a best-case "exit strategy"–exit Syria or "flee Syria" in Tourian' s words.
    People of Armenian descent in Syria are as Syrian as people of Armenian descent who are American or Canadian. Syrian-Armenians are deeply rooted in Syria. It is true that some zealous factions in Syria target and threaten Armenians as they do others for a variety of reasons, including extortion and plunder.

    Along with the twelve or so centuries-old Armenian-speaking villages of Kessab, there are Armenian villages in Syria where people do not speak Armenian (Aramo, Yacoubieh, etc.). The investigative work by the late George Apelian revealed an officially registered tribe of 25,000-strong Muslim Armenians who do not speak Armenian but give their children Armenian names, relate to their roots and consider themselves Armenian, even though they are the progenies of mixed marriages. There are many Syrian-Armenians of mixed marriages, some of whom are Armenian-speaking others not but mostly Christian. There are untold possessions, family and social ties in Syria to just walk away.

    There is one thing that we, as individual Armenians, living outside Syria should do. It is by far the most important thing we can do re this calamity. So that they may weather this storm, we must generously assist Syrian-Armenians financially and materially, and help them make their own decisions–neither in haste nor in a panic–one person or one family at a time.  

    1. RE: Syria Not Azerbaijan…

      Vahe – 

      I agree with you, we must generously assist Syrian-Armenians financially and materially, and yes, Armenians in Syria have deep roots there.

      However, there is a parallel between Azerbaijan and Syria. Like Syria, Baku and Sumgait were Armenian cultural centers before the Russian Revolution, and during Soviet times. Like Syria, Baku and Sumgait housed many mixed marriages (Vladimir Shlapentokh. A Normal Totalitarian Society. M.E. Sharpe, 2001; p. 269), and many Armenians did not know how to speak Armenian. 

      The parallel between Azerbaijan and Syria ends where Azerbaijanis specifically targeted Armenians and the FSA targets non-Sunnis (including Kurds). The trigger point for the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in Azerbaijan was the Republic of Mountainous Karabagh pursuing its right to self-determination within the Soviet Union (Azerbaijani autonomy did not exist in the 1980s). In Syria, foreign fighters following a foreign agenda have infiltrated the country. The common slogan by the authors of this sectarian violence is "The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave." 

      Yes, it is true that some zealous factions in Syria target and threaten Armenians. But, if memory serves correctly, the Young Turks also started out as a small zealous faction in the Ottoman Empire. 1.5 million Armenians were later exterminated and hundreds of thousands of Armenians ended up being refugees, as they did not take the Adana massacres of 1909 as a warning bell. "Coincidentally," the same zealous factions in Syria (FSA) is sponsored by the Republic of Turkey.

      With respect to your point concerning the 25,000 Muslim Armenians, are they being targeted by the FSA? If the 25,000 Muslim Armenians are not being targeted by the FSA, does this mean that Armenians outside Syria should not help evacuate Syrian-Armenians who are being targeted by the FSA?

      Finally, you are right, there are untold possessions, family and social ties in Syria to just walk away. You and I are fortunate we do not have to make a decision to just walk away. In the end, Armenians in Syria are in a no-win situation. 

      Thank-you for taking the time to read my article.


      1. Any Relation?

        Your family name reminded me of our famous poet Bedros Tourian–Պետրոս Դուրեան–and his brother Archbishop Yeghishe Tourian, the Patriarch of Jerusalem.

        Bedros died very young and childless. For all I know, the archbishop was his only brother and thus did not have children either.

        Thus I did not expect to meet their descendent. Nonetheless, does you family have any relation with the family of the famed Tourian brothers?

  2. Thorough Analysis

    Mr. Tourian, your article is a thorough analysis. Many countries are suffering from economic slowdown. If a country's citizens are unemployed, there will be less opportunity for new immigrants to find jobs and stabilize their life in that country. Which countries will be the most viable for Syrian-Armenian refugees?

    1. RE: Thorough Analysis

      BB – 

      The question you pose should not be looked at from a destination point of view, but a labor mobility point of view. No specific country is the answer, it is whether the Syrian-Armenian refugees' skills provide a fit with their new home.

      Refugees will always have a difficult time finding employment in a new country, regardless of economic conditions.  Just to reiterate two points in the article: a) Armenians in Syria face grave danger; and b) aid allocated for Syrian Armenians is alloted for projects in improving Armenian infrastructure in Syria.  Since Armenians in Syria face one of two options; death or escape,   providing aid to ensure Armenians stay in Syria will go to waste (i.e. renovating buildings that will once again be damaged because of terrorist actions, or errant artillery shells).

      Armenian organizations providing aid for Syrian Armenian refugees must start addressing the issue of labor mobility in order to effectively ensure Syrian Armenian refugees land on their feet outside Syria. Addressing this issue is the start of answering your question.

      Thank-you for your input,



  3. Sorry to Tell You

    Sorry to tell you that the picture you've posted as that of an Armenian church most probably is a Greek Orthodox church.

  4. Syrian/Armenian Exit Strategy

    Dear Mr.Tourian,

    You went through a detailed description of the situation of Armenians in Syria.
     I was born in Aleppo and I have relatives in Aleppo and Damascus. Most Armenians do not necessarily share your views concerning their emigration to third countries. Here are some of the reasons:
    1 . Some may not believe that the Salafists and other Islamists will win  even in case of regime change.
    2.  Lebanon is not a viable alternative in view of the insecure and volatile situation in that country.
    3. Europe and North America can absorb a relatively small number of possible Armenian migrants in view of the very restrictive visa and residence permit requirements.
    4. The well-established and consolidated Armenian community and its organizational infrastructure should not be destroyed. On the contrary, the situation provides us the possibility of organizing a massive transfer of the community to  Armenia, including Artsakh. To achieve this aim it may be necessary to establish a fund financed by the Diaspora and managed by an all-Armenian agency. The agency would provide, for at least one year, the material and financial support to allow Syrian-Armenians' settlement and integration into the society in Armenia.
    5 .The unemployment in Armenia is a false argument. Syrian-Armenians are able to create  jobs, businesses and enhance even agriculture. They were able to do so after 1920 and later following the annexation of Alexandrette to Turkey in 1939. Over time they will be an asset to Armenia, rather than a burden.
    6. I also share the view expressed earlier that Syria is not Azerbaijan and Sumgait is not Aleppo nor Damascus.

    1. Re Syrian/Armenian Exit Strategy

      Dear Mr. Seraydarian,

      Thank-you for your thoughts. I'll address your points in turn.

      1. We can agree to disagree.

      2. Lebanon is an example of a country where [Syrian] refugees can go. It is not a necessary destination. In fact, you can make an argument that every country or region I proposed is not an ideal destination.

      3. I do not know the particulars of the restrictive visa requirements in the West. In fact, I said as much and thought the Armenian Bar Association would be a good resource. However, seeing how you seem to know, maybe you can further discuss this point. 

      4. Go for it. 

      5. Prove me wrong that unemployment in Armenia is a false argument. Lots of Armenians from Armenia leave Armenia do so for this very reason.

      6. We can agree to disagree.



  5. Outcome of the War in Syria

    What does the outcome of the war in Syria mean for Armenians? According to Henry Kissinger, “If Assad wins, it would be bad for the West and if the opposition wins it will also be bad for the West."

    No matter what happens, Armenians will be in a worst situation. Those who could afford, have already left Syria; those who could not, are still there. It is ironic that we always expect the poor to pay the price of "survival".

    Shouldn’t the poor have a dignified exit from a country that offers no future to our compatriots for the next three decades? We should not forget the Lebanese experience. The prospect of a Lebanese-Armenian in 1975 was far better than it is now.

    Ted is right. Ted has challenged the status quo.

    Hagop Toroyan

    1. Outcome of the War in Syria

      I am of Kessabtsi descent but have not lived in Syria year-round. Much like most of the Diaspora Armenians, I am also concerned about the welfare of the Syrian-Armenians. In my estimation, as an outcome of this deadly conflict the lot of the Syrian-Armenians will be as good and as bad as that of the general population in that country.

      Let us be mindful that Armenians in Syria have lived longer under pre-Assad regime, than under the Assad regime. They have taken active political role in Aleppo, especially for phasing out the French Mandate. As a result, they bore repercussions during the late '50s. However, these repercussions were not directed against the Syrian-Armenian community because of their ethnic affiliation. There were allegations of Cold War involvement of some segments of the Armenian community.

      I don't think one can make plausible any prediction on the duration of this conflict and its resolution. Changes will come with or without Assad at the helm. As an outcome, the Syrian-Armenians, much like most of Syrians, will be worse off economically. They may bear some ethnic repercussions much similar to other communities.

      All that's needed now and for the near future is for Diaspora Armenians to assist financially and materially so that their brethren in Syria can weather this calamity. It would be catastrophic if we exit Syria in haste much like we left Cilicia in the latter part of the '30s.

      1. Outcome of the War in Syria

        Vahe jan,

        Cilicia was ours, Aleppo is not.

        We need to assist the Armenians in Syria, but I am more concerned about the children, the young. I wish if the Melkonian Institute was functional so that those boys and girls could have been salvaged from the trauma of the war at least. Many have argued that Armenia would have been a better choice, but it seems Armenia is not ready yet…

        Just a thought but we need action.

        Hagop Toroyan

  6.  Let Syrian-Armenians Decide

    A Syrian-Armenian's decision to emigrate would weaken our presence there but might be beneficial to him. So be it. Thinking that we are being "good" Armenians, we have no right–thousands of miles away from the bullets and the bombs–to put our national "interests" ahead of the interests of endangered Armenians and advocate that they stay put. It's easy to give advice far from the bullets and the bombs.

    Syrian-Armenians should decide what they want to do and tell us what kind of assistance they need–whether they want to stay, to emigrate to Lebanon, Armenia or to the West.

  7. Discussions on Syrians of Armenian origin


    After reading the descriptions and discussions on the subject, I would recommend all of you to express yourselves in Armenian, because all what have said is being read by non Armenians, you name it,  and this is harmful intelligence and it works and is working  against us, Syrians, of Armenian ethnic origin.

    Pajanvadz azki me jagadikire arants herades ghegavaroutyants tejvar oreroun aysbisi hedevank gounena. Ouji tem ouj bedkeh kordzadzel. Hasguetsoghin shad parev. 

  8. Update on Aleppo Armenian Population

    The clear and present danger for Armenians in Syria is now Turkey openly joining the fighting. If [and when] Turkey does start an offensive, and Armenians are forced to evacuate Aleppo, can the Lebanese Armenian infrastructure absorb those refugees?

    I'd like to draw the readers' attention to Safratyan's analysis of the grave situation.

    Safrastyan: Armenian community of Aleppo is in danger

    The outcome of Syria’s crisis is not yet visible and there is a real danger of military action against Syria, Ruben Safrastyan, Turkish studies expert, Director of the Oriental Studies Institute of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences, said at the Moscow-Tbilisi-Yerevan spacebridge in Yerevan.

    “Turkey may strike Syria. From the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, Turkey actively supported the Syrian opposition,” he said.

    Turkey has deployed a great number of offensive weapons near its border with Syria, so the danger of Turkey’s strike against Syria is topical, Safrastyan added.

    According to the expert, there are 7,000 Syrian Armenian refugees in Armenia and the Armenian community of Syria, including Aleppo, is in great danger.

    “The Armenian community of Aleppo will suffer big losses and will be forced to leave the city in case of Turkish attack,” Safrastyan concluded.

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