Armenia and the Islamic State: Between Non-Existent Past and Impossible Future

Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.
Teaser Image Caption
Blue Mosque in Yerevan, Armenia.

The Islamic State (or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Arabic: ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah, hereafter the IS) is a Sunni Muslim quasi-state controlling territory in the so-called Sunni Triangle in Iraq and the North-East regions of Syria. IS-held territory is quite close to Armenia, around 400 kilometers as the crow flies. The threats emanating from the IS have a geopolitical and regional component which are bound to be a concern for Armenia.

This is not about the Islamic State’s global claims that often take a quite amusing and flamboyantly declarative form, such as claims to territories from Portugal to India, including the Caucasus, both south and north. These claims are primarily targeted at an uneducated domestic public that has trouble picturing the modern geopolitical reality. But apart from ridiculous maps, real problems also spill beyond the territory of the conflict and pose a threat to the countries of the Caucasus.

Of the four Caucasus countries, it seems that Armenia is the least threatened. The reason is very simple: there are practically no Muslims in this country. The only active mosque in Armenia, the Blue Mosque in Yerevan, was inactive in the Soviet times and was restored as an architectural landmark in the 1990s after independence was restored. Most people who worship in this 18th-century mosque are tourists or embassy employees from Muslim countries. Moreover, it is a Shi'a mosque and its mullah is Iranian, which rules out the possibility of Sunni radicalism taking root there - and this would be the case even if it had a regular congregation.

Accordingly, the problems faced by the other Caucasus countries, i.e. Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia that have Muslim populations are not manifest in Armenia. Radicalization of Muslims, politicization of Islam, the emergence of groups supporting the IS – these problems do not affect Armenia. Moreover, because of the Karabakh conflict with Azerbaijan and the closed border with Turkey, Armenia is not affected by the transit of people to the combat zones in Iraq and Syria. This also means that Armenia does not have the problem faced by other countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia of combatants returning from the combat zone with corresponding ideological indoctrination and experience.

Repercussions of Humanitarian Disasters

But lowest threat does not mean low threat. Moreover, Armenia not only faces threats from the conflict in Syria and Iraq; there are already tangible consequences.

First of all, there is a flow of refugees from Syria to Armenia. This Middle Eastern country had a rather large and well-developed Armenian community. It was mainly concentrated in Aleppo, but Armenians also resided in other Syrian cities. It is hard to ascertain the precise number of Armenians that resided in Syria before the conflict, but it is thought to have been in the tens of thousands. Around 15,000 of them are currently in Armenia. Many refugees used Armenia as a transit country. The procedure of receiving Armenian citizenship is simplified for refugees, but their number is large for a small country, and providing these refugees with necessary social benefits is difficult for Armenia. The flow is not slowing down; there are Armenians in Syria who cannot leave because they cannot reach the borders of the country as the airports are destroyed. There are already a number of families that have been naturalized and now live in Armenia but still have family members left in Syria who are unable to flee.

In the IS control zone itself, Christians are tortured and executed, often publicly; Christian neighborhoods are destroyed with heavy artillery; churches, including those of historical and symbolic value, are being destroyed, which is hurtful for the Armenian community.

The second problem affecting Armenia is the cruel elimination of Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria. Representatives of the Yazidi religion are considered pagans by Islamic radicals and what is happening with that community in Iraq and Syria has been qualified as genocide by the UN. Yazidis are Armenia’s largest ethnic minority and see what is happening with their kinsmen as an apocalypse. Although it has expressed relevant willingness, Armenia cannot make any significant effort directed at the rescue or evacuation of these communities. This gives the Armenian Yazidis a feeling of helplessness in the face of the brutalities perpetuated by the radicals towards their kinsmen.

The two concerns described above are urgent issues directly concerning Armenian society; the ongoing humanitarian disasters affect the ethnic kinsmen of the population of Armenia and thereby the population itself.

Geopolitical Reshuffle

There are threats of a different, geopolitical character which concern the Armenian government and the academic community. However, it is quite clear that the whole regional paradigm is changing. Syria and Iraq will clearly never be the same they were before the events of recent years. There are many possible scenarios, but there is no chance of the Assad regime fully reasserting control over Syria or a Saddam-like regime reemerging in Iraq. Now, the two countries only exist on the map. Iraq is divided into three parts, Syria is plunged in turmoil. Any scenario to overcome the crisis will include the de jure or de facto acknowledgement of the new configuration of power; nothing else will work. A Kurdish state already exists on the ground; the IS is finalizing the destruction of the legitimacy of Iraqi statehood, thus speeding up its de facto collapse. Syria is overwhelmed with its own problems and has stopped occupying the central role in the region that it had done until recently. The Christian Middle East is quickly shrinking. In various parts of the region the population is homogenizing via ethnic cleansings, genocides and mass population movements. In this new configuration, there is simply no place for ethno-religious minorities like Armenians. Until now, they were a substantial factor in many spheres, including their countries’ political mosaic. It is unlikely that IS will grow substantially in territory and seize new states, though that is also a possibility. But it will undoubtedly destabilize the region, with repercussions for countries directly neighboring Armenia, such as Turkey and Azerbaijan. This is actually already happening; Turkey is to a large extent serving as a transit territory and a logistics base for the radicals, while Azerbaijan is quickly becoming more Sunni: most new Islamist movements there are Sunni rather than Shi'a. Hundreds, if not thousands of Azerbaijanis have waged jihad abroad.

This is bound to raise the concerns of the Armenian state and the elite of Armenia and the Middle Eastern Armenian Diasporas. The reflexive reaction of Armenians is to support familiar forms of existence of the Middle East, the forms that Armenians became accustomed to during the decades of existence within authoritarian regimes that were, for all their faults, secular and stable and had clear rules of the game. In the case of Syria, it was Assad’s regime. The Armenians, and indeed all the other ethnic minorities of Syria, no longer have a place there; IS is not planning to tolerate an ethno-religious mosaic on its territory. The new reality is impossible for Armenians to adapt to.

However, taking the region back into the past and restoring its old configuration, is something neither Armenia and Armenians nor the entire global community can hope to achieve. Simply supporting Assad’s regime will not bring results. Even if it survives, it will never be the same again. Iraq does not exist anymore, and it is almost impossible to even imagine its rebirth. New regional political priorities are needed, but they are impossible to create, because there is no one to do it with: the players are not at the table yet. This leaves just one option: to wait for future developments, which is exactly what Armenia is doing. Arguably, this is the best, or the only, possible course of action.