Armenian deminers and medical staff before heading to Syria

US Takes Armenia to Task for Sending Non-Combat Mission to Syria

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WASHINGTON and YEREVAN (Combined Sources) — After a terse reaction by the United States regarding a mission deployed by Armenia to Syria, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday, February 13, emphasized the humanitarian nature of the mission and sought to downplay the concerns expressed by the US State Department.

Armenia announced this month it had sent a team including de-mining experts, medical personnel and security officers who will work in Aleppo to carry out humanitarian activities in the northern city of Aleppo, which had a large ethnic Armenian population before the war.

In a statement, the US State Department and the US Embassy in Armenia said, “We recognize the desire of other nations to respond to the humanitarian situation in Syria, and we share the concerns about protecting religious minorities in the Middle East,” the US State Department said on Wednesday. “However, we do not support any engagement with Syrian military forces, whether that engagement is to provide assistance to civilians or is military in nature.”

“Nor do we support any cooperation between Armenia and Russia for this mission. Russia has partnered with the Assad regime to slaughter civilians and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Russia continues to protect the Assad regime and its atrocities on a global stage,” the statement added.

The US embassy provided a copy of the statement to Eurasianet but declined further comment.

Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan said that the US and Armenia, for years, have responded to the humanitarian tragedy that has plagued Syria and the ensuing refugee crisis that has displaced millions in the wake of the war there.

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“We reiterate that during the entire process of the Syrian conflict Armenian people worldwide has followed the fate of the civilian people, minorities, including the Armenian community in Syria with great concern,” Naghdalyan said.

“The Armenian public has expressed deep concern and compassion toward the suffering of the civilian population and the destruction of the country. This is a country that had a key contribution to the survival of the Armenian people who escaped the Genocide,” added Naghdalyan, who explained that Armenia’s Consul General in Aleppo has worked non-stop during the Syrian crisis.

“Armenia has granted asylum to more than 22,000 Syrian refugees and has provided four airlifts of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Following the establishment of relative calm and security Armenia plans to continue its humanitarian mission, including providing doctors and specialists for humanitarian de-mining aimed at supporting the improvement of the living conditions of the war-stricken civilian population of Aleppo,” said Naghdalyan.

“The Armenian mission is exclusively humanitarian nature, and is guided by the international humanitarian laws and will coordinate its activities with the institutions and international partners offering humanitarian aid on site,” emphasized Naghdalyan.

“We share the concerns of the international community about the situation of the ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East and highlight the continuity of humanitarian aid provided to Syria,” she added.

Washington is increasingly assertive in its criticism of Armenia’s ties with Russia and Iran, but it’s not clear whether it has the clout to do anything about Yerevan’s allies.

Armenian Mission

Armenia deployed the 83-man mission on February 8. The deployment is nevertheless clearly an attempt to shore up relations with Moscow, which have been strained since the new government, led by former opposition journalist Nikol Pashinyan, took power as a result of street protests last spring.

Russia — which transported the Armenian soldiers to Syria and will provide them logistical support while there — publicly thanked Armenia for the gesture. “You were the first to respond to our call for providing assistance to the Syrian people,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu told his Armenian counterpart, David Tonoyan.

“US-Russia and EU-Russia tensions over Syria are real and this looks like Armenia is backing Russia’s effort to prop up a dictator who used chemical weapons on his own people,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC, think tank. “So, the optics of this Armenian decision are bad. In fact, they are particularly bad on this side of the Atlantic,” he told Eurasianet.

Even as the Trump administration displays mixed signals about the US’s own involvement in the Syria conflict, Washington remains strongly opposed to the Assad government and sees Armenia’s deployment in that context, said Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group who works on the Syria conflict. “The US has been going to great lengths to enforce the political and economic isolation of the Syrian government internationally,” Heller told Eurasianet. “Hence the harsh reaction to Armenia’s new commitment in Syria, which, no matter how minor or innocuous, the US considers unwelcome.”

Stronski noted that Russia has for many years been trying to get its military allies to contribute in some way to its mission in Syria, but without success until now. The fact that Armenia has become the first to succumb to Russian pressure has raised concern in Washington, he said.

“We here in DC understand Armenia’s dependence on Russia for its security. And, we knew this was coming. We also know that Armenia has interests in Syria because of the Armenian community there. But we’ve also known that former president Serzh Sargsyan was under similar pressure for the past two to three years, as were Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. So, this certainly suggests that Pashinyan is less able to push back on Russia than his predecessor or even the Kazakh or Kyrgyz presidents,” Stronski said.

Still, he said this was likely to be a short-term spat. “Armenia will recover from this. There is a lot of good will towards the new Armenian government here with hopes that Pashinyan will be able to address long-standing social, governance and corruption problems in Armenia,” he said. “But the deployment was certainly an unforced error in the country’s relationship with the US and not the way to garner positive attention towards the country from Americans.”

Russia is a longtime security ally of Armenia: Moscow provides discounted military hardware to Yerevan, the Russian military maintains a large military base on Armenia’s border with Turkey, and Russian guards patrol the Turkish border. At the same time, Pashinyan’s new government is filled with pro-Western figures and he has courted increased Western assistance. Shortly after taking power Pashinyan visited Brussels for a NATO summit and said he expected “more concrete and greater assistance” from the West as a result of Armenia’s democratic changes. Advocates of closer US-Armenia ties have also pushed for an upgrade in relations following Pashinyan’s rise to power.

Trump Pressure

But the new Armenian government is confronting geopolitical barriers to partnership that will be difficult to overcome – particularly in Washington. In the past the US has tended to be forgiving of Yerevan’s ties with Moscow, as well as with Iran. The Trump administration, however, has taken a strongly hawkish position against Iran, and across Washington Russia is increasingly being seen as an enemy, narrowing Armenia’s room for geopolitical maneuver.

The American criticism of Armenia’s support of Russia and the Syrian government follows a visit by US National Security Adviser John Bolton to Yerevan in the fall, when he suggested that Armenia should close off its border with Iran — a key outlet for the isolated country — to support US sanctions against Tehran.

At the time, Pashinyan pushed back against Bolton’s comments, saying “John Bolton, or anyone for that matter, cannot speak on my behalf.”

“Although the lack of a more measured and diplomatic response is less of a surprise given the posture of the Trump administration, it is significant,” said Richard Giragosian, a Yerevan-based analyst and director of the Regional Studies Center. “This strong stance against Armenian support and participation in broader Russian operations in Syria is a message to Moscow as much, if not more than to Yerevan,” he said.

“It is also a message to Iran, and can be seen as a muscular move to assert a renewed US commitment to contain, combat and curtail Iranian interests, and to counter any Iranian perception of an American weakness of resolve from the Trump administration’s announcement to withdraw from the Syrian theater,” Giragosian said.

At the same time, Washington has relatively few levers to push in Armenia, where Russia and Iran are far more important partners than the US And heavy-handed criticism could backfire, said Anahit Shirinyan, a Yerevan-based analyst for the think tank Chatham House.

Russia has given Assad crucial military and diplomatic backing throughout the nearly eight-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011. The conflict has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Russia is to provide logistical support to the Armenian mission, which Yerevan said would be carried out “exclusively outside the zone of combat operations.”

On February 12, however, Armenian Defense Minister Davit Tonoyan said that “if it’s necessary to participate in hostilities as well, the Republic of Armenia will do that within the letter of the law.”

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan seemed to cast doubt on that, saying on February 13 that he was unaware of the defense minister’s remark and that there were no plans for Armenian personnel to take part in any combat operations.

(RFE/RL and Eurasianet contributed to this report.)

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