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July 31, 2012, Tuesday

A Caucasian song plays in Syria

“It was [our] contribution to the Syrian revolution” proclaimed social media activists in Azerbaijan after last week's events in Aleppo (Halep).

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) celebrated victory at the battle of the country's second city and economic center Aleppo with an Arabic rendition of the Azerbaijani song "Qal, Sene Qurban" (Stay, [I will] Sacrifice for You). The battle for Aleppo, once a bastion of support for Assad's regime, is critical for both the regime and the opposition. The Syrian crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to predict, and the pressing question at this juncture is “whose” song we will hear in Syria.

Every turn of events in Syria is linked with further developments in Iran, which is of more urgent concern among the South Caucasus countries. Nevertheless, Syria has its own type of impact upon the domestic and foreign policies of the Caucasian states.

Of the regional countries, Azerbaijan as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council is equipped with a greater range of diplomatic tools, but on the other hand, Baku's regional energy interests are threatened by the current situation. Moreover, the Syrian crisis could affect Azerbaijan's foreign relations, considering that Azerbaijan's positions do not coincide with Russia's. For instance, Moscow boycotted the “Friends of Syria” forum that took place on April 1 in İstanbul, while Azerbaijan participated. Official Baku is following the international community's direction on the resolution of the crisis. This is made easier by the fact that Azerbaijan has no border with Syria, and there are few domiciled Syrians.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baku, there are just 60 Azerbaijanis living in Syria.

The current crisis has also caused the collapse of the Syrian component of Azerbaijan's gas export plan; Baku and Damascus reached a preliminary agreement in June 2010 on export of some 1.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas for the Syrian market via the Pan-Arabian pipeline once the fraction between Turkey (Kilis) and Syria (Homs) had been constructed by the end of 2011. While the breakdown of this particular agreement does not in itself pose a serious threat to Azerbaijan's energy policy, in the context of the continuing turmoil in the Middle East, Baku is increasingly anxious about maintaining political balance. The focus here is more on Iran and on what Tehran will do if they lose their position in Syria in the event of the fall of the Assad regime.

Armenia's standpoint on Syria is different from Azerbaijan's. Yerevan's policy toward Syria has domestic limitations and also resource constraints. The first issue is the country's Syrian Armenian community of around 60,000 people. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, a huge proportion of this ethnic community applied for Armenian citizenship and faced serious challenges in the process. Many experts believed that the Armenian government failed to take appropriate steps to protect Armenians in Syria. Key challenges included high flight prices, complex visa requirements and the difficulty of finding accommodation in Armenia. Armenia's main airline, Armavia, advertised Aleppo-Yerevan-Aleppo tickets for $670, higher than Syrian companies. Armavia is the national carrier of Armenia, but is financially indebted to Russia; one might argue that it is in Moscow's interests to keep the Armenian community in Syria. Russia is enacting a type of “trench warfare” in the Middle East, trying to prevent outright conflict for the sake of its national interests and manipulating the situation to support components of its policy toward the Caucasus. For example, Russia did not oppose ethnic Abkhazians in Syria from returning to Abkhazia, as a stronger Abkhaz population would strengthen its position against Georgia in this contested territory.

Meanwhile, some experts and politicians have criticized Armenia's policy in Syria. According to Ara Sanjian, a historian at the University of Michigan, “the Armenian Government can do very little in Syria because of its weak economy; Armenia, and more importantly government officials, do not have adequate knowledge of the realities of life among the Diaspora.” Only following such criticism did the Armenian government introduce an amendment to its citizenship laws, whereby, as of July 26, Syrian and Lebanese citizens of Armenian descent can receive Armenian passports from consulates and embassies.

It is remarkable that Tbilisi's position on this issue substantially diverges from those of Baku and Yerevan. Georgia faces similar domestic challenges to Armenia. According to the official position, reiterated by Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze in an interview with on June 27, 2012, “The crisis needs to be settled based on the will of the Syrian people, irrespective of which ethnic or religious group they belong to.” The fall of the Assad regime poses one significant advantage for Georgia: that Assad's comments on Abkhazia and South Ossetia will be forgotten. During his visit to the Russian city of Sochi on Aug. 21, 2008, Assad expressed his support for the Russian position on Abkhazia and South Ossetia and declared that the August War had been “provoked by Georgia.” On the other hand, Georgia has faced challenges from the de-facto authorities of Abkhazia. In Syria, there are 8,000 Syrians of Abkhaz descent, and the Abkhaz authorities have presented plans for just 90 of them.

While Azerbaijan and Georgia have, broadly speaking, followed the lead of the international community regarding Syria, Armenia has remained silent, giving rise to domestic criticism. Yerevan has been subjected to significant external (i.e. Russian) influence, as well as having planned poorly for the issue of Armenian communities in Syria at a domestic level.

There is no doubt that what is occurring in Syria is a humanitarian tragedy, and that the Assad regime believes that Western governments lack the will to back up their rhetoric with action. The opposition's song about sacrifice is increasingly relevant; at this point, with or without international assistance, the opposition will make sacrifices for a new and democratic Syria.

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