Families Fleeing Syria Battle Raise Tension in Oil Region

Gorge Mardyan and his family of four have lost most of their possessions. Gorge left his job as a printer and they have fled their large home in Aleppo, Syria, for a cramped one-room apartment in the disputed South Caucasus region. Yet they feel lucky. They hope they are out of danger.

The Mardyans are among 10,000 war refugees in the area. A century after finding refuge in Syria from massacres and persecution by the Ottoman Empire, Armenians are on the move again. More than 2 million people have left Syria since the conflict there flared in 2011. So far, the fighting has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

“This is the best for us,” mother of three Nelli says. “I took them away from the war to let them just be children.”

While the number of Syrian refugees in Armenia is a fraction of the two million who poured mainly into Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, their arrival threatens to intensify tension in the energy-rich South Caucasus region. As the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh region and border skirmishes continue since a 1994 cease-fire.

The South Caucasus is the only non-Russian route toward Europe for oil and gas produced in the Caspian region, where BP Plc and partners have invested more than $40 billion in the past 20 years. Azerbaijan, the third largest oil producer in the former Soviet Union, has threatened military action over the Nagorno-Karabakh assisted settlements, which it says are illegal.

Bullet Escape

“Me and my daughter Anna were on the balcony of our Aleppo home,” says Nelli, 49. “We came inside to answer the phone. On our return, we found bullets right at the place we had been sitting.”

Their escape in June almost ended in disaster when their Mercedes taxi driver had to swerve to avoid another car and they plunged into the flooded Arpa river outside Armenia’s capital.

“We escaped the war to fall into the river,” Gorge, 51, says. The family was unhurt, though losing more possessions in the crash.

They are now settled in the Lachin district of Nagorno-Karabakh. Gorge has temporary work as a plumber while his wife works as a janitor for only $100 a month each.

“I can’t open a printing house because I can’t find materials we were using in Aleppo,” says Georg. “At least we don’t pay for utilities, because the Nagorno-Karabakh government covers this.”

School Welcome

Nelli says she doesn’t mind the 30-minute walk to school or nearest town and they have been made welcome. The school has allowed her children to attend without uniform because they can’t afford them.

They share a kitchen and bathroom with five other Syrian Armenian families. Their Aleppo fifth-floor home is shuttered and closed, with no return in sight. Tensions have escalated to over a Aug. 21 poison-gas attack near Damascus that the U.S. says killed 1,400 people.

“I am happy that we are at least far from shootings and missiles,” says Nelli.

Still, Azerbaijan has warned that it may even start military operations over some of the settlements.

“It’s a big concern to us as it aims to change the demographic balance in the region,” Elman Abdullayev, a spokesman for the Azeri Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says by telephone from Baku, the Azeri capital. “With this illegal settlement, the Republic of Armenia is also damaging the peace process.”

Tax Breaks

Hundreds of ethnic Armenian families are being granted aid and tax breaks as the government in Yerevan is resettling them in some of the districts flanking the disputed enclave, which were taken into the Armenian control during a war with Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

About 700,000 Azeris were forced to leave the areas in what Azerbaijan describes as ethnic cleansing. Brushing off four United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding a withdrawal from the districts, Armenia has defended their conquest by the need to create a security buffer zone.

Azerbaijan has forged closer ties with Israel and NATO-member Turkey and increased defense spending 27-fold to $3.7 billion a year in the past decade, outlays that exceed Armenia’s annual budget. Armenia hosts a Russian military base in its second-biggest town of Gyumri, near the Turkish border, and Russian troops guard Armenia’s borders with Iran and Turkey.

Resettlement Aid

“We can’t leave them without attention,” Nagorno-Karabakh president Bako Sahakyan says in an interview in the capital Stepanakert. While he doesn’t have a specific resettlement program for Syrian-Armenians, he is applying the resettlement policy of adjacent districts to them as well.

“Despite the fact that we also are facing difficulties economically, we try to soften their problems and give them some opportunities,” he says.

Hovhannes Asmaryan, 43, who moved to Stepanakert from Aleppo a year ago, was granted those opportunities in form of tax privileges for $600,000 investments into kiwi and olive gardening in the disputed region.

“We don’t worry about conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” the businessman says. “We had some income in Syria, but because of the military situation, businesses simply stopped operating.”

About 50,000 Armenians are still in Syria, while more than 70 have been killed and 150 wounded, according to the Diaspora Ministry of Armenia.

Legal Help

The Aleppo law firm of Meghri has helped 4,000 Syrian Armenians gain Armenian citizenship in the past two years, according to its director Boghos Aghababian, 57.

Armenia is seeking assistance from European, U.S. and Russian businesses for a district estimated to cost $10 million, designed for 150 Syrian families called “New Aleppo.”

Syrian-Armenians have been given free entry visas, taxation privileges and free education. By contrast, the state did little for Iraqi-Armenian refugees who came to Armenia during the Iraq war in 2003, according to Hranush Hakobyan, the diaspora minister.

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