Understanding Armenia’s Syrian Gamble

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 129

Armenian troops in Syria, August 2018 (Source: insidesyriamc.org)

Following bilateral closed-door talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Moscow, on September 8, Armenia’s interim Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan told journalists that Russia and Armenia would soon launch a “joint humanitarian mission” in Syria (Azatutyun.am, September 8). The operation, apparently requested by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, will be implemented under the auspices of the Russian military command in the Arab Republic. Pashinyan specifically emphasized that the “humanitarian mission” would “lack a military component.” However, such an undertaking is normally categorized as a so-called “military-humanitarian mission,” particularly since Armenia’s entire contribution will consist of defense ministry personnel (Lragir.am, September 9). According to Defense Minister David Tonoyan, Yerevan aims to dispatch about 100 personnel, including army doctors, de-miners and engineers, as well as a guard detachment to be stationed at an Armenian military logistics base in Aleppo (Mediamax, September 11). Yet, Tonoyan assured that this contingent would not be involved in combat operations. Prime Minister Pashinyan, meanwhile, conveyed hope that “other international community representatives [would] join this initiative as well” (Sputnikarmenia.ru, September 9).

Pashinyan’s September statement in Moscow clarified similar remarks he made on August 17, in Yerevan, during a mass demonstration to mark 100 days since the “Velvet Revolution” placed him in power. At the rally, the prime minister denied growing tensions in bilateral relations with Russia and revealed that his government and Moscow were preparing an “unprecedented humanitarian initiative” in Syria (Civilnet.am, August 17).

The asymmetric nature of relations between these close politico-military allies is nothing new. As such, the recent regime change in Armenia has further precipitated the emergence of conceptual disagreements between Yerevan and Moscow. In particular, Pashinyan’s government immediately launched a comprehensive domestic anti-corruption campaign; and in response, the Kremlin explicitly began backing a number of corrupt, pro-Russian former Armenian officials, while applying “soft pressure” through Russian oligarchs of Armenian origin. Moscow is particularly worried about the future of former president of Armenia Robert Kocharyan and incumbent Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) chief Yuri Khachaturov—living symbols of Armenian kleptocracy. Concurrently, Moscow has refused to extradite former Armenian defense minister Mikael Arutyunyan (Interfax, August 31).

Elaborating more on the so-called joint humanitarian mission in Syria, Armenia will likely be deploying units of its United Nations–certificated peacekeeping brigade, which, to date, has already participated in several North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations, including in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Indeed, several representatives of this Armenian peacekeeping brigade were observed in Syria, in early August, deployed in conjunction with a separate humanitarian aid delivery mission (InsideSyria, August 7). Reportedly, these Armenian military representatives were also in the country to negotiate the details of a forthcoming engagement.

Moscow has been trying to draw new actors into the Syrian theater for years. On the one hand, Russia has sought to internationalize the support for the al-Assad regime; and on the other hand, it wishes to reinforce its efforts to oppose Western interests in the region. In the summer of 2017, for example, the Russian State Duma (lower chamber of parliament) Defense Committee’s chief, Vladimir Shamanov, called upon allies “to contribute to Russia’s efforts in Syria” within the framework of peacekeeping capabilities under the CSTO (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 26). However, Russia’s CSTO allies Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan unequivocally rejected any prospect of participation, highlighting the necessity of a proper UN resolution and mandate beforehand (Tengrinews.kz, June 24, 2017).

Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to deem Armenia to be Russia’s most vulnerable and dependent “partner.” Additionally, in Moscow’s eyes, Yerevan possesses legitimate reasons to engage in Syria given the tens of thousands of members of the Armenian diaspora still living in this war-torn country (Armenian Weekly, December 9, 2015). Back in 2017, while discussing humanitarian aid to Syria and the refugees being hosted on Armenian soil, then–defense minister Vigen Sargsyan did not rule out that Armenian Armed Forces could be drawn into Syria (YouTube, May 12, 2017). Nevertheless, the former president, Serzh Sargsyan, managed to postpone any such decision, perhaps by pointing to the threatening chronic escalation in tensions with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Three key considerations may be driving Pashinyan’s decision to take part in a joint Syrian peacekeeping operation with Russia. First is Russia’s coercive diplomacy vis-à-vis the new Armenian political elite. This modus operandi was previously vividly demonstrated in September 2013. Then, Armenia drastically shifted away from Euro-Atlantic integration after then-president Sargsyan refused to sign the long-negotiated agreement with the European Union, opting instead to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. In the case of Syria, Moscow might be pushing Armenia’s leadership to enter the Syrian conflict by threating to cease arms supplies.

Second, following the Velvet Revolution that brought Pashinyan to power, his interim government is now striving to appease Putin, who sees any manifestation of institutionalized democracy in Russia’s near abroad as a threat to his own legitimacy at home. In so doing, Pashinyan’s team perhaps opted for military involvement in Syria in order to stabilize and balance Yerevan’s currently ambiguous relations with Moscow.

Third, during his recent negotiations with Putin, the Armenian prime minister reiterated his desire to re-establish the bilateral strategic relationship based on reciprocal respect for each other’s national interests and non-interference in domestic affairs (Gazeta.ru, September 8). Importantly, this proposal represents Yerevan’s first delicate attempt to draw red lines in its complex relations with Moscow. Specifically, Pashinyan is seeking to reshape Armenia’s institutionalized clientelist relationship vis-à-vis Russia into a more balanced “major partner–small partner” association. This type of format should permit Armenia to pursue a more diversified foreign and security policy. Therefore, Yerevan’s motivation to join a “humanitarian mission” may simply be a concession to win Russia’s non-interference in domestic affairs. This third driver, if accurate, would suggest a rather naïve view of Moscow by Yerevan’s new political elite. It seems unlikely that the Kremlin would be willing, under any circumstances, to stand idly by and watch as the corrupt and oligarchic Armenian politico-economic environment—an important instrument of Russian control over Armenia—is progressively dismantled.

At the same time, a missing piece to the Syrian humanitarian mission at present is any repatriation plan for Syrian Armenians. Such initial preparations, raised at and coordinated with international organizations like the UN, could alleviate the expected negative feedback from the West to Armenia’s involvement in the war alongside Russia—particularly, since Armenia never joined the United States–led Global Coalition fighting the Islamic State. Instead, Armenia could bring into play its politically consolidated and sizeable diaspora in Lebanon and Syria. Hence, international acceptance of Armenia’s self-reliant activities in Syria could bring with it military training and equipping opportunities with Western partners as well as possibly reinvigorate stagnating ties with the United States. A purely bilateral mission with Moscow is unlikely to achieve any of those side benefits. To the contrary, it would likely strengthen Russia’s regional influence.