When Armenia sent a few dozen troops to support the Russian military mission in support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad earlier this year, few eyebrows were raised. Thousands of foreign soldiers from powers as disparate as the United States and Turkey are already stationed in the country. A handful more sappers and medical officers from the embattled nation of the South Caucasus hardly represents a dramatic upset in the balance of power in war-torn Syria.
Officially, Yerevan claims its 80 non-combat personnel are in Syria in support of the sizeable ethnic Armenian community, which numbered 100,000 prior to the outbreak of war eight years ago. Tens of thousands have resettled in Armenia since the beginning of the war, making the small Caucasian state of three million one of the largest per capita recipients of Syrian refugees in Europe.
Yet thousands of Armenians still remain in Syria, mostly concentrated around ravaged Aleppo in the country’s north. Ensuring their welfare has been a priority for Yerevan, which has cultivated close links with Syria since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. In an interview at his country’s embassy, Arman Kirakossian, the Armenian ambassador to the UK, pointed out to me that Armenia is “the sole state” to have continuously operated a consulate in Aleppo, even during the years of siege which preceded its capture by Syrian regime forces in 2016.
Syria’s Armenians are descendants of refugees who fled what is widely recognised as a genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. For many, the Syrian war evoked painful memories, all too reminiscent of the tales of their ancestors, according to Serdar Korucu, the author of a book on the Armenians of Aleppo.“Most Armenians in Syria think that there is no better option than Assad”. He says Orthodox Christian Armenians fear the consequences for religious minorities if the Syrian president were to be deposed, which helped justify Yerevan’s decision to join Moscow’s campaign in support of the Syrian regime.
Armenia’s deployment of a small number of troops to Syria was likely also motivated by its prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, seeking to reassure Russia that he does not seek to substantially alter Armenia’s traditionally pro-Russian stance. Pashinyan came to power as a reformist leader last year, after heading a wave of peaceful unrest against his power-hungry predecessor.
Moscow is known to be nervous about Pashinyan’s coterie of pro-Western aides and his history of scepticism about Armenia’s place in Russian-led military and economic alliances. His decision to send a handful of non-combat troops in support of Russia’s military mission in Syria was probably intended to signal that Armenia plans to stay aligned with Moscow. Hovhannes Nazaretyan, a journalist from Yerevan, tells me there is more to Armenia’s decision to send troops than Yerevan’s official position lets on. “Although the Armenian government certainly cares about Syria’s ethnic Armenian community, the decision to send a mission to Syria was more likely a result of Russian pressure,” he says.
Armenia has always existed on the edge of empires—first Ottoman, and later Russian and Soviet. Cordial relations with Armenia’s much more powerful neighbours are essential to his nation’s long-term survival, notes Kirakossian, the ambassador. Equally important is cultivating deep links with the Armenian diaspora, more than twice the population of the country itself and an important source of wealth and political backing. With its non-combat mission to Syria, Yerevan has deftly managed to provide much-needed support to a threatened religious minority, while reassuring its traditional patron Russia that, for now, it remains on Moscow’s side.