Having survived the Syrian civil war, two ethnic Armenians resettled in Yerevan, only to be jolted by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
George Bekarian pulls an excellent pint for someone who has just been shot in the arm. The 25-year-old Syrian Armenian from Aleppo grins as he tells me it was his third time being hit, but he was still standing. The amiable young man is a bartender at a popular Yerevan bar, a keen Los Angeles Lakers fan, and — when occasion demanded it — a crack shot with a sniper rifle.
When the “frozen” conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh broke into open fighting in fall 2020, Bekarian was one of the first to volunteer to fight on the frontlines. He had returned from the battlefield for rest and recuperation when Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, announced the country’s capitulation. Now Bekarian is back tending bar at Liberty Pub in Yerevan, adjusting to peacetime life for the second time.
Hovig Asmarian, a 50-year-old Syrian Armenian who has made his home in the self-declared Republic of Artsakh, also has a warmth and optimism around him that belies his extraordinarily difficult circumstances. When I first visited him in late October 2020, after the military conflict had begun, at Samra, his family’s cozy Syrian restaurant in the center of Nagorno-Karabakh’s regional capital of Stepanakert, I could hear the crack of artillery shells falling in the hills just a few miles away. “You know that the day the war started,” he said, “I received a large number of new reservations, all coming from Azerbaijan. ‘Please set the table for 250 troops,’ one of them said, ‘they are all going to be on your doorstep tomorrow morning.’ Well, it has been a month now, but I’m still here waiting!” When the war broke out, Asmarian had sent his young family to Yerevan, but he decided to stay behind and support the war effort.
Bekarian and Asmarian are just two of the thousands of Syrian-born ethnic Armenians who left Syria during the civil war that has ripped their country apart, only to find themselves at the center of a new one. The war fought last fall between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave has been a defining moment for all Armenians, and indeed for the entire South Caucasus region. The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is part of the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when the majority ethnic Armenian autonomous region tried to secede from Azerbaijan. It became the most bitter and intractable of the “frozen conflicts” of the newly independent states.
Last year’s Azerbaijani offensive was the result of decades of fruitless negotiations over the status of the enclave, often sabotaged by bad-faith actors on both sides. In the 1990s, Armenia wrested Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, although it remained Azerbaijani territory under international law. Now, the majority of the territory is back under Baku’s control, leaving many Armenians in the territories in limbo. Russian peacekeepers now patrol the new line of contact and apparently have final say over who goes in and out. These boots on the ground mean that Russia now has more sway over the region than any time since 1991.
Like most Syrian Armenians, Bekarian and Asmarian’s families were expelled from Anatolia in the 19th century and took refuge in Ottoman-ruled Syria. While times have certainly changed, there was a time when Syria was a haven for those fleeing war. When the Ottoman Empire began its mass expulsions and executions of Anatolian Armenians in 1915, in what was the start of the Armenian Genocide, many were deported or fled to Syria.
“We had a relative in the Turkish army that knew what was coming,” Asmarian said. “He found my great grandmother, and he begged her to go, asking if she could at least give one of her young sons to her departing family to look after him. So it was that my grandfather went to Syria, and his brother remained at home. He spent 20 years looking for this brother and gave up. Then one day, he was stopped in the street by a man he did not know, who swore he recognized him. It turns out the man was friends with his brother and introduced them for the first time. And just like that, they were reunited!
“Aleppo was our home for many generations,” Asmarian continued, “a vibrant city that was full of life. Our family brewed beer, grew and sold flowers, and tried to reconnect with others from our nation who had been scattered throughout the region.” For nearly a century, a large Armenian population found themselves at home in Syria.
When the Syrian regime began bombing Aleppo in 2012, Bekarian took up arms as part of an Armenian volunteer group that was tasked with defending Armenian areas from the offensive. He was wounded twice in clashes between rebels and regime forces. But as the war dragged on, Turkey’s involvement in funding fellow armed groups grew and the influence of Islamist opposition factions increased. Soon, clashes also broke out between the Armenians and rebel factions whom they saw as “terrorists.” Some decided that they were in fact better off with the regime and began cooperating with them. In late 2014, disillusioned and dispirited with the war, Bekarian left Syria and made it across the border to Lebanon where he took a flight out to Yerevan.
Asmarian, too, wanted to stay in his family’s home in Aleppo. But by late 2012, the civil war had expanded so drastically that he decided to move for the safety of his young family. “One day, a large car bomb exploded on our street and nearly destroyed our house,” he said. “It could have killed us, and it was then that I reluctantly decided we had to leave.”
A little over 20,000 Syrians migrated to Armenia throughout the war. The government didn’t consider them refugees but classed them as formerly displaced peoples returning to their homeland. They were given settlement rights and provided with subsistence and help finding employment. Nonetheless, many struggled to assimilate into a society with significantly different customs and a difficult language that many of them did not speak.
Bekarian took to his new home with gusto, quickly becoming well known in the hospitality scene. Shortly after the bomb blast in Beirut that destroyed Lebanon’s port in August, he posted on Facebook, “Dear Lebanese Armenians, please start thinking seriously about moving to Armenia, I know that it can be really hard to start from zero all over again, but I always hear the words ‘we wish we had come sooner’ from Syrian Armenians. … Don’t be late. Move on today before tomorrow!”
Such newfound peace for Syrian emigres to Armenia was short-lived. At around 7 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2020, an artillery barrage fired from Azerbaijan woke Asmarian and his family in Yerevan. “I am sad to say that my children already know those sounds very well,” he said. “I tried to tell my youngest, who is 11, that it was a thunderstorm.” His son didn’t believe him.
Bekarian signed up on one of the first days of the conflict. He was placed in Mataghis, a village in the mountainous area north of Karabakh that was at the center of some of the most vicious early fighting. He fought with an international brigade of volunteers from across the Armenian diaspora who had traveled there especially for the conflict. In a video he showed me on his Facebook page, his comrades can be seen sitting around a fire in a shelter singing patriotic songs. “We are Syrian Armenians, Iranian Armenians, American Armenians, Lebanese Armenians, American Armenians, all Armenians! We all fight for one goal!”
Bekarian said that the war’s ferocity eclipsed what he saw in Aleppo. “In Syria we had a civil war that started slowly. In Karabakh, it was much more intense day to day.”
Azerbaijan overran the village in the first week of fighting; Bekarian was injured in the retreat.
Asmarian claims to have recognized Syrians among the advancing Azeri forces. Azerbaijan and Turkey have consistently denied the use of Syrian mercenaries, culled from the ranks of the former Free Syrian Army, but many independent press reports have confirmed the presence of many hundreds.
For Syrian Armenians, the apparent entry of their compatriots into the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict seems to confirm all their suspicions about the role of Turkey, which also supported rebel factions in Syria, and that the true purpose of helping Azerbaijan retake territory is Turkish irredentism. “We feel only that Turkey wants to finish the genocide, what they started in 1915. Therefore, we must stand and fight. I am tired of running. Here I will make my stand,” Asmarian said.
It’s a common refrain, but, as with all forms of historical memory tied to historical suffering, it doesn’t capture the whole story. Armenians have naturally interpreted current events through their own view of history without considering how the present differs from the past. Azerbaijan had nothing to do with the killings of Armenians during the First World War. Its territory was then part of the Russian empire, which was on the side of the entente. Azerbaijan itself also suffered grievously during the first conflict. Immediately after the first war in the 1990s, the refugees from the territory captured by Armenia flooded into Azerbaijan proper, making the country temporarily host to more internally displaced people per capita than any other in the world.
For some Syrian Armenians, there is a straight line to be drawn from the 19th century to the 21st. They look at Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels and the support for Azerbaijan in the same way — as part of Ankara’s regional aggression. To them, Turkey was responsible for supporting the jihadist elements that came to dominate the Syrian rebel movement. This turned the Syrian revolution from a liberal and secular movement into one dominated by Islamists, where Christian Armenians could have no role. Those who believed in the revolution’s original aims of a liberal and democratic Syria blame Turkish influence as being a factor in the perversion of those goals.
The Armenian community sees Ankara’s support for the rebels as entirely self-interested, a way to increase Turkey’s influence in its former colonial possessions, which President Bashar al-Assad just happens to stand in the way of. As Asmarian puts it, “Erdoğan’s only interest is in restoring the Ottoman empire.” The ceasefire agreement Armenia signed means that Russian troops now guard Stepanakert, but the nearby town of Shusha, a crucial strategic, and cultural capital of Karabakh that has become a shadow of its former glory thanks to the conflict, is back under Azerbaijani control.
Nearly 8,000 were killed on both sides of the war last fall, mostly young men born well after the dispute their fathers started. There was no deal reached as to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh itself, which was the very issue that had started the war. Syrian Armenians throughout their community are facing an existential crisis.
“Who even are we anymore?” asked Asmarian. “Are we going to be independent, part of Armenia, part of Azerbaijan? Or are we just part of Russia now? Any status under Azerbaijan would be unacceptable to anyone living in Artsakh. I think we would all leave. I would prefer to go back to Syria.”