Resettling Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh could provoke war

August 12, 2012, Sunday/ 15:19:00/ LAMİYA ADİLGIZI

As the Syrian crisis reaches the level of a civil war, it is not only Syria's neighbors who are being negatively affected by the continuing violence in the country but other nations as well.  

While a number of concerns have emerged, especially over the flow of Syrian refugees to neighboring countries including Turkey, it is Armenia's impulsive offer to resettle Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh -- Azerbaijani territory controlled by ethnic Armenian separatists with the support of the Republic of Armenia -- that has become a nightmare for Azerbaijan, Turkey's closest ally in the region, and that threatens to damage peace negotiations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“Resettlement of Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh is a highly provocative plan on the part of Armenia, and [aims to achieve] nothing more than gaining a dividend [in the conflict settlement],” said Rasim Musabeyov, Azerbaijani deputy and political analyst, in an interview with Sunday's Zaman on Thursday.

Politicians from both Armenia and separatist Nagorno-Karabakh have recently offered a helping hand to ethnic Armenians escaping the raging violence in Syria, welcoming their settlement in the Armenian-backed breakaway region Nagorno-Karabakh.

“Nagorno-Karabakh is ready to accept Syrian Armenians and provide them with an opportunity to study in Artsakh [the word used by Armenians for Karabakh] free of charge, as well as providing them with accommodation,” authorities of separatist Nagorno-Karabakh have reportedly said in an address to Armenian youths.

Speaking to Sunday's Zaman, Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, analyst for research portal Strategic Outlook for the Russia-Caucasus region, remarked, “Resettlement [of Syrian Armenians in the region] is one of the most influential and important steps for changing Nagorno-Karabakh's demographic structure, and it will substantially affect the status quo [in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict]."

According to Öztarsu, bringing ethnic Armenians from foreign countries and resettling them in Nagorno-Karabakh is of great importance to Yerevan, as the adaptation of the newly arrived Armenians to these territories and provision of their basic needs, encouraging them to settle into the area long-term, would strengthen Armenia's claim in peace negotiations in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “Even if the resettlement project is not successful, the initiation is already a resolute step.”

Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave located within Azerbaijan and predominantly populated by ethnic Armenians, together with seven Azeri-populated adjacent territories, was occupied by Armenian forces under the command of Serzh Sarksyan, now president of Armenia, in a bloody six-year war (1988-1994), leaving 30,000 dead and nearly a million displaced. Since then, negotiations to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have been ongoing under the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, established in 1992. The conflict, however, remains stalemated, as there has been no progress in negotiations. Azerbaijan and Armenia are each insisting on conditions that are unacceptable to the other: Armenia demands the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh and refuses to withdraw its troops from the occupied territories unless the full sovereignty of the region is ensured, while Azerbaijan insists on upholding its territorial integrity, promising that it will be open to discussion and possible redetermination of the status of Nagorno-Karabakh after the withdrawal of troops from its territories.

Speaking in an interview with Sunday's Zaman, Elnur Soltanov from the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy has said that Armenian settlements established in the wider Caucasus region from the neighboring countries in the Middle East over the last two centuries could easily become a source of friction between immigrant Armenians and local Azerbaijanis, as the demographic balance begins to change.

Discussing the rise of Armenian nationalism that led to the outbreak of armed warfare in Nagorno-Karabakh in late 80s, Soltanov said, “Therefore, continuing on this sensitive path is unwise from a historical perspective.”

Armenians themselves have attributed their revolt of the 1980s partly to the changing demographic balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, favoring Azerbaijanis. After warfare ceased in 1994 with the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent territories, Azerbaijanis were expelled from the territories, leaving them empty. For a long time the Armenian government has been striving to increase the Armenian population in Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions.

Promising to accommodate Armenians fleeing the Syrian violence in Nagorno-Karabakh is an extension of a set strategic course aimed for emergence of tension in the region, Azerbaijani political analyst and editor-in-chief of Caucasus International Zaur Shiriyev has said in remarks to Sunday's Zaman.

Arsen kharatyan of Voice of America's Armenian service, who has previously lived and worked in Syria, says, however, that the process of resettling Syrian-Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh “should be viewed as a wider regionalization of the Syrian crisis, involving Armenia, [separatist] Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan in the ongoing proxy war.” Kharatyan, however, expresses doubts that it could become a cause of renewed armed conflict between the parties.

For the Armenian government, as well as certain groups within the Diaspora, says Kharatyan, the priority regarding the Syrian Armenian community is “to provide them with basic security.”

Explaining the controversy both in Armenia and among the Syrian Armenians as to whether the community should resettle in Armenia or stay in Aleppo, and other cities of Syria, and become part of the ongoing civil war Kharatyan said, "If the conflict continues to escalate, Armenia, a country of 3 million, may have an influx of 60,000 refugees in a short period of time,” Kharatyan said.

Analysis in the Armenian media suggests that without sufficient international support for the resettlement of the growing number of refugees, Armenia is not free to shelter them where and how they please.  

Shiriyev notes, however, that the Armenian government will be incapable of effectively implementing the resettlement process.  

“Only after many challenges to Armenian society did the Armenian government amend the citizenship law, on July 26, allowing Syrian and Lebanese citizens of Armenian origin to obtain passports from the country's embassies abroad,” Shiriyev said. He also claimed that Syrian Armenians who are living in relatively good conditions reject the notion of resettling in Armenia as an economically tougher situation. “In this case, the propaganda of resettling Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh might just be a tool in the campaign of self-recognition,” Shiriyev noted. Furthermore, he stated, it will not negatively affect the continuing conflict resolution process as there has been no progress anyway -- but Baku should be persistent in continuing these efforts within the framework of international organizations, particularly the OSCE Minsk Group.

Azerbaijan calls the resettling of Syrian Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh illegal. For more than two decades, since the end of the bloody conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1994, it has struggled to regain its lost territories through the negotiations within the OSCE Minsk Group.

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry has expressed concerns over Armenia's offer to settle Armenian families fleeing Syria in Nagorno-Karabakh, calling on international organizations -- including the UN Security Council, OSCE and Minsk Group co-chairs -- to remember the monitoring of illegal settlements carried out in Nagorno-Karabakh by the Minsk Group, and urging sensitivity on this issue.

“The monitoring [conducted by the OSCE Minsk Group] concluded hat Armenia is employing an illegal settlement policy in Nagorno-Karabakh and other occupied territories of Azerbaijan. The international community must prevent the continuation of this policy,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry reads.

OSCE Minsk Group co-chair nations regularly express their commitment to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, emphasizing that only a peaceful negotiated settlement will allow the region to move beyond the status quo toward a secure and prosperous future.

“Armenians are well aware of the growing consensus that the status quo in Nagorno-Karabakh is not acceptable,” Soltanov said, adding that when the international community repeatedly invokes the notion of “moving beyond the status quo” they don't mean a change for the worse. “It is utterly provoking that the current unacceptable consensus created by Armenia's demands, involving the ethnic cleansing of Azerbaijanis, is now made worse by plans to settle more Armenians from Syria, possibly in the homes of expelled Azerbaijanis,” Soltanov concluded, underlining that the issue of resettlement of Syrian Armenians is a threat to the negotiation process.

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