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US-Backed Syrian Forces Form Armenian Unit

FILE - A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through a heavily damaged street leading to an Armenian church in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 18, 2017.
FILE - A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through a heavily damaged street leading to an Armenian church in Raqqa, Syria, Oct. 18, 2017.

U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) this week announced the establishment of a new force made up of ethnic Armenians.

The SDF is a Kurdish-led multiethnic military alliance that played a key role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Syria.

The SDF liberated the last IS stronghold of Baghuz in eastern Syria last month and now controls more than one third of Syria's territory.

"We will follow the path of our martyrs and resist until all the [ethnic] components of the north and east of Syria are free and build a decentralized Syria," said Masis Mutanian, commander of the new Armenian force, during remarks at the announcement ceremony on Wednesday.

"It is time to form a real Armenian military force in Syria," Mutanian added.

First Armenian force

This is the first all-Armenian military force in Syria since the beginning of the country's civil war in 2011.

Ethnic Armenians made up nearly two percent of Syria's prewar population of 23 million, with a significant percentage living in the Kurdish-majority northeast.

Their number, however, has dramatically declined since the beginning to the Syrian war as many fled the violence to resettle in Armenia and European countries.

Throughout the war, Syrian Armenians have largely remained neutral. But some sided with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, arguing that al-Assad is better than other alternatives.

Signal to Assad

Forming an official Armenian force is a signal the SDF is sending to the Syrian regime, some analysts said.

"By mobilizing an Armenian brigade, the SDF is pronouncing to Assad that it is here to stay and that one of Syria's most vulnerable communities recognizes that fact by joining up with the SDF," said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

He told VOA that "Syria's Armenians are part of a vulnerable community that goes with the status quo to protect itself, which for most of the war has meant going with Assad."

'Terrorist organization'

The new Armenian force was launched on April 24, the day Armenians throughout the worlds commemorated the 104th anniversary of the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

Some pro-government media outlets in Turkey described the new force as a ‘terrorist organization.'

Turkey views the People's Protection Units (YPG), the main force within SDF, as part of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been engaged in deadly conflict with Turkish military for more than three decades.

Ankara also opposes Washington's continued partnership with the SDF, demanding the U.S. stop supporting the Kurdish-led group.

Safe zone

U.S. and Turkish officials have been holding talks on a proposal for a safe zone along Syria-Turkey border. But there remains major differences over the details according to a Washington Post report Thursday.

"The U.S. effort to get Turkey to reach an arrangement with the SDF in northern and eastern Syria is moving at a glacial pace," analyst Heras said.

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to carry out an offensive in SDF-held territory, particularly after the U.S. declared that it would withdraw most of its 2,000 troops from northeast Syria.

"For now, the U.S. team cannot get concessions from either side because both Turkey and the SDF view the situation as a zero-sum, existential battle," said Heras.