Syrian revolution and future of the Armenian community

by Filor Nigoghosian

Published: Saturday March 03, 2012

A rare sight: an Armenian language protest sign in Qamishli opposes a Syrian constitutional clause that restricts presidency to Muslims. Provided by the author

Chicago - From the author: The purpose of this article is to establish a general understanding of the situation in Syria and where the Syrian Armenian community fits. It is an urgent call to reexamine the dominant position of the Armenian community towards the Syrian crisis, and is written out of a genuine concern for the future of the Armenian community in Syria. I will provide a general background of the Syrian revolution and its main actors, an understanding of the Syrian Armenian community and its respective position towards the Syrian revolution, and a discussion of the primary concerns of the Armenian community.  

The Syrian revolution: background and actors

The uprising in Syria was triggered after a number of children from Deraa who, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall and were tortured by government security forces. Images and news of the tortures of children in Deraa spread across Syria, and coupled with economic grievances, corruption, and nepotism, the protests in Syria turned into a full-blown revolution for freedom and dignity.  

Local Coordination Committees emerged as primary actors in organizing and planning protests and civil disobedience tactics in support of the revolution on the ground. Another key group both politically and for organizing regional protest activities is the Syrian Revolution General Commission, headed up by Suheir Atassi.

The Syrian National Council is an umbrella organization that encompasses many opposition blocs and serves as a political body seeking to overthrow the Syrian regime and establish a civil democratic state. It is supported by the LCC's, the Assyrian Democratic Organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, Kurdish parties, and the Damascus Declaration signatories.

The National Coordinating Committee is another Syrian political opposition body led by Haythem Manna. It holds a strong position against foreign intervention, sectarianism, and violence.

The Free Syria Army is the collective name for army-defected militias that emerged in the summer of 2011 as well as civilians who have joined the popular armed struggle. They are not led by any central authority or bound together by a particular ideology, and are in fact quite diverse.  There are other opposition groups within Syria, however the ones mentioned are the key actors.

Minority participation

While socially conservative Sunnis account for a huge number of participants in the revolution, Alawis, Christians, ethnic minorities, and seculars have also actively participated in all aspects of the revolution. Although they have not participated as collective communities, this has not stopped activists from participating in the revolution. It is important to dispel the notion that that minorities do not participate or that the opposition is monolithic.

Alawi and Christian activists have protested across the country.  Alawis such as Tawfiq Dunia, Nabras Fadel, and Sondos Sulaiman have been serving as members of the Syrian National Council along with dozens of Christians-most prominently George Sabra. Many Alawis and Christians have been imprisoned and tortured. Some Alawis, such as Khawla Dunia and Samar Yazbeck, have served as revolutionary writers. The prominent Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman, who has been leading rallies in Homs, has been received as a revolutionary hero by Syrian protesters.

In December 2011, Father Paolo Dall'Ogli, a Jesuit priest who founded Mar Musa monastery, was expelled from Syria by the government for speaking against totalitarianism and for reconciliation in Syria. Revolutionists from all backgrounds hailed him as a hero. In the heart of protests in Hama, a city vilified by the regime as a hotbed for Islamic extremism, protesters raised a wooden cross with the words "Thank you Father Paolo" written on it. The expulsion of Father Paolo, along with the government's new constitution maintaining the requirement that the President be a Muslim, reminded the Christian community that the government is not necessarily out to protect them.

Ethnic minority groups, specifically Assyrian Syriacs and Kurds, have also played a significant role in the revolution, both serving in the Syrian National Council as well as leading local coordinating committees, mainly in Qamishli and Hasake.

Securing a future for Armenians in Syria

Armenians in Syria and in the Middle East in general tend to live in isolated communities, detached from social and political life. They overwhelmingly perceive themselves as temporary guests in the country, as opposed to citizens who contract rights and obligations. This mentality, which is largely to blame on the leadership of the community, shapes their perceptions of the political realities of the day, and compels them to support stable dictatorships in which they can maintain these isolated and segregated communities.  

This model for the Syrian Armenian community, however, is a faulty one. It fails to conceive of Armenians as an integral part of the fabric of Syria, while also failing to secure the future of the community in the long term.

Approximately 60,000-80,000 Armenians currently live in Syria. They are mainly centered in Aleppo, but also have large numbers in Damascus, Latakia, Kessab, Der Zor, Qamishli, Raqqa, and other areas.

They maintain institutions such as schools, however under certain limitations. Schools for example, are not allowed to teach Armenian history. They are allowed to teach the Armenian language a certain number of periods a week, but only because Armenians are recognized as a religious community and not an ethnic community, thus the language is allowed only on the basis of it being the liturgical language of the Armenian Church.

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