DAMASCUS — Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian visited Damascus on Wednesday where he met with Syrian leaders. Speaking at a joint press conference with his counterpart Walid al-Moallem, Nalbandian expressed serious concern at the plight of ethnic Armenians remaining in Syria. “We are deeply concerned about the ongoing clashes in Syria, the humanitarian crisis and the disasters resulting from the terrorists’ operations here,” Nalbandian said.
He also met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid growing calls in Armenia for the evacuation of thousands of Syrian Armenians trapped by fierce fighting between Syrian government troops and mostly Islamist rebels.
In a clear reference to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other radical militant groups fighting Assad’s regime, Nalbandian emphasized the “inadmissibly of supporting terrorists” in Syria’s bloody civil war. “We will continue to keep these issues at the center of the international community’s attention,” he added in remarks reported by the Armenian Foreign Ministry.
ISIS was widely blamed for last year’s destruction of an Armenian church in the eastern Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor. The Saint Martyrs’ Church was part of a memorial complex to some 1.5 million victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey. Many of them were starved to death in the desert surrounding Deir ez-Zor.
Nalbandian mentioned the church destruction, strongly condemned by the West, at the Damascus news conference. He also stressed that Syria became a “second homeland” for tens of thousands of Armenian survivors of the genocide.
President Assad praised this stance during his meeting with Nalbandian. “President al-Assad lauded Armenia’s position regarding the crisis in Syria, saying that Armenia can play a vital role at this critical juncture in the region by relaying to Western countries the truth about what is happening in the Middle East,” reported the official Syrian news agency SANA.
Assad reportedly drew parallels between the Ottoman Turks who massacred Armenians a century ago and Islamist militants targeting innocent civilians in their bloody war against his regime.
The Foreign Ministry in Yerevan said ahead of the talks that Nalbandian will also meet in Damascus with leaders of Syria’s endangered Armenian community concentrated in the northern city of Aleppo. It issued no statements on that meeting later in the day.
The community numbered an estimated 80,000 members before the outbreak of the civil war four years ago. It is thought to have shrunk by more than half, with some 13,000 Syrian Armenians currently residing in Armenia alone.
Fighting in and around Aleppo has intensified in recent months, causing even more hardship to the thousands of Armenians still living there. Many of them are reportedly desperate to flee the city but are unable to do so because of the security situation.
The Armenian government has been facing calls, including from Syrian Armenian refugees in Yerevan, to help evacuate them to Armenia. The government has until now resisted such appeals, pointing to the position of the Syrian Armenian community’s political and religious leaders. The latter remain opposed to the evacuation.
Signaling a change in official Yerevan’s policy, Diaspora Minister Hranush Hakobian suggested earlier this month that a mass exodus of the remaining Armenians from Syria may be only a matter of time. The Armenian government should therefore start exploring ways of helping Syrian Armenians willing to leave Aleppo and other parts of the war-ravaged nation, she said.
Before traveling to Syria Nalbandian paid an official visit to Lebanon where he met with the country’s leaders and representatives of Lebanese-Armenian community.