BACKGROUND: This year, Armenia’s Defense Minister Seyran Ohanyan has asserted on several occasions that the military is ready be involved “even beyond the boundaries of our state” in the confrontation with ISIS. This was first announced in response to the threat of ISIS infiltration into the South Caucasus, as part of its envisioned caliphate in Eurasia. Aside from Armenia’s involvement in joint CSTO drills in Central Asia, some policymakers in Yerevan seek options to repair relations with the West after Armenia’s abrupt decision to cancel its negotiation of an Association Agreement with the EU in September 2013. Yerevan has already placed its first boots on the ground in the Middle East, taking part in the UNIFIL peacekeeping mission in Lebanon since the end of 2014. Armenia and Lebanon agreed on a framework for comprehensive military cooperation in March 2015.
At first glance, Armenia – geographically cut off from the Middle East and circumscribed by both Russia and Turkey – is mostly preoccupied with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and hardly experiences a threat from ISIS. However, Armenia is affected by the conflict with ISIS through the suffering of the Armenian Diaspora, along with other local Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria. Another reason for Yerevan’s attention to the conflict in the Middle East is the continual destruction of churches of historical and spiritual significance for Armenia and Armenians worldwide. The acts of demolishing, expropriating, and damaging Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches and the private property of local Armenians have been accompanied with kidnappings and executions of Armenians in Iraq and Syria, constituting a population of about 130,000 prior to the Arab Spring.
Due to the broad reach and integration of the Armenian Diaspora in Arab societies and its close ties with several Arab states, Armenia has a foreign policy potential in the Middle East that remains largely untapped. Yet Moscow’s agenda to delimit Armenia’s integration with the West and instead include it in the framework of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the CSTO, along with several Central Asian states, has hindered Armenia from pursuing its national interests in the Middle East.
Armenia’s partnership with NATO, which Yerevan once pursued enthusiastically, has regressed after NATO’s measures to deter Russia’s expansionism. Russia’s tremendous leverage over Armenia’s foreign policy makes pursuing inclusion in new NATO initiatives similar to those offered Georgia and Ukraine too risky from Armenia’s perspective. Instead, partnering with the West and its allies in the Middle East could be a preferable option for rebuilding the relationship and overcome Armenia’s isolation as it does not directly infringe upon Russian interests.
IMPLICATIONS: Forged by a Communiqué in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the coalition was initiated by the U.S. and its NATO and regional allies and is open to interested states that see a threat from an expanding ISIS. The coalition could also be a suitable arena for Armenia to initialize military cooperation with key NATO members and regional powers. While Armenia has limited military capabilities, it could contribute to logistics, humanitarian missions, and military training. Cooperation with military powers within the coalition that possess air forces and sophisticated intelligence services could substantially improve the professional skills and interoperability of Armenia’s military.
Also, regional players would perceive Armenia’s stake in Middle Eastern geopolitics as somewhat natural and justified, owing much to the proactive Armenian diaspora (numbering over 350,000) in Arab states. In the 1990s, this auspicious atmosphere opened an avenue for political and economic ties between Armenia and the Middle East. Even in the early 2000s, Armenia made a few attempts to engage politically with the Arab League, with encouragement from Egypt and Syria, and deployed peacekeepers to Iraq. Yet these initiatives on Armenia’s part were conditioned by Russia’s relative geopolitical weakness and an Armenian leadership at the time that was more prone to independent policymaking.
Armenia’s engagement with the coalition would set an agenda for diplomatic activity in the Middle East, which would in turn require Armenian authorities to reshuffle the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, replacing pro-Russian elements with a new generation of creative diplomats. Besides, Armenia and its military has a moral and legal commitment to ensure the security of Middle Eastern Armenians, a significant share of which also possess Armenian citizenship. Various estimates can be made regarding the risks involved in Armenia’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition. However, from a pragmatic perspective, the degree of threat that Armenia faces from ISIS will likely be the same weather Armenia takes part in the coalition or not. On balance, Armenia stands to gain more from being part of the coalition than to be outside it.
Participation could offer Armenia opportunities to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and stimulate military-political cooperation with the UAE, entrenching its links to the Gulf. Furthermore, Armenia’s aspirations as a Middle Eastern player could spur new attempts at reconciliation with Turkey, and opportunities to preclude Russia’s regular manipulations of this issue.
Some Middle East experts in Washington and London argue privately that without comprehensive coordination with the U.S., Armenia’s engagement in the anti-ISIS coalition could be perceived as an act of support for Iran’s increasing role in the region. To avoid this perception, Armenia needs to restructure its ties with the U.S. and pursue military relationships with Iran in terms of regional security amid the Iran-West rapprochement. For Washington, Armenia’s inclusion in the coalition could provide an interesting formula for reducing Armenia’s dependency on Russia, which would be beneficial to both Tehran and Washington.
Currently, Armenia is not up to the task of redrawing its military-political priorities, mostly due to the Russian factor. However, Armenia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) could take steps in this direction as this is practically the only military-political institution that retains relative freedom of maneuver. The MoD is manned by a significant number of military officers that have received NATO training and education and while it is also subjected to a degree of Russian influence, Moscow does not control its activities to the extent it controls the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A case in point is Armenia’s First Deputy Minister of Defense David Tonoyan’s recent visit to Washington in early August 2015, which was unlikely approved by Moscow. During the visit, U.S. officials underscored the significance of a ceasefire regime, and offered military-technical support to prevent further violations of the peace negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
As for Moscow’s new initiatives in Syria, these do not entail the involvement of CSTO members largely due to a lack of necessary logistical, financial and strategic capacities of both Russia and other CSTO members, and the limited incentive for Belarus or Kazakhstan to be engaged there. Moscow’s goals in Syria seemingly do not primarily involve fighting ISIS, but rather to manifest that Russia is indispensable in resolving Middle Eastern issues and to retain its only anchor in the Mediterranean – the Tartus base in Syria. Against this backdrop, Russia will not approve of Armenia’s participation in the U.S.-led coalition, but can hardly prevent it if the U.S. makes similar overtures to invite Armenia as it recently made to Uzbekistan. In this case, a negative reaction from Russia would be seen as an active attempt to undermine the coalition.
CONCLUSIONS: Armenia now experiences a period where every foreign policy and military initiative with the West represents a chance to balance Russian influence. Aside from the prospect of improving military interoperability and acquiring technical support, Armenia could by taking part in the coalition regain at least a limited Western vector in its foreign policy and approach a balance that it pursued for 15 years, until it was dramatically reversed by President Serzh Sargsyan in 2013.
Indeed, the benefits to be gained from Armenia’s involvement in the Middle Eastern conflict are highly disputable and it is no panacea against all Armenia’s ills. However, it could pave the way for additional initiatives and engagement. Despite its idealistic nature, taking part in the anti-ISIS coalition represents an opportunity for Armenia to avoid permanently becoming a Russian “vassal” state.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Eduard Abrahamyan holds a PhD from Yerevan State University. He is currently based at the University of Westminster, and is a fellow of Policy Forum Armenia, Washington DC.
Image Attribution: www.armenianweekly.com, accessed on Sept 25, 2015