L.A. gang members in Syria: Why they fight for Assad

A video featuring two members of Los Angeles-area gangs claiming to be fighting in Syria for Bashar Assad grabbed international headlines earlier this month after it was flagged by a Washington-based Middle East monitoring group. The armed men, later identified by CNN as Syrians of Armenian ethnicity who lived in the U.S. before they were deported back to Syria, also caught the attention of American security officials, who say they're investigating the video.

But beyond the novelty of "L.A. gangbangers in Syria," the story highlights the nuances of a bloody ethno-sectarian civil war now entering its fourth year, and the ambiguous fate of Christian Armenians and other Syrian minorities caught between a regime which claims to protect them, and a factitious array of rebel groups which includes many Islamic militants, among them a powerful group linked to al Qaeda.

American Armenians bristle at the Pro-Assad label popularly affixed to their Syrian counterparts -- a label leaders fear the now-viral video will only perpetuate.

"The Armenian community is a non-combatant community, a civilian community caught in a much larger struggle," said Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America. "The actions of any individual don't reflect the views of the Armenian American community or the wishes of Armenians in Syria, which are for an end to the fighting, and a return to peace."

"Their interest is in surviving."

In the video, one of the men identified in media reports as Nerses Kilajyan, claims membership in Armenian Power, a California street gang known primarily for crimes including identity and credit theft. But according to Bedros Hajian, an Armenian community activist and Los Angeles chaplain, Armenian Power started as an immigrant group with a noncriminal mission: protecting Armenians.

"It was basically a group to keep our identity because our identity was under attack," said Hajian, who told CBS News he was one of the founding members of the gang 30 years ago, but left soon after its formation. While the gang eventually evolved into a criminal enterprise, Hajian said, to some extent the same instinct behind its creation may now be driving the men in the video.

"No matter how hardcore of a criminal an Armenian is, when it comes to protecting our own, we forget everything and we protect our own because we've been through a lot," Hajian said, adding that the gang and the men in the video are not representative of American or Syrian Armenians.

Armenian Christians in Syria, just like the rest of the nation's small Christian minority, will have felt the threat of encroaching radicalized Sunni Muslim rebels, and their fears are not unwarranted.

As the conflict has grown increasingly sectarian, attacks on Armenians and other Christians by Sunni militants have been reported widely. In February, the al Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), one of the more powerful Islamic extremist groups battling the Assad regime, demanded Christians pay a levy and adhere to restrictions on their religion in the rebel-controlled city of Raqqa, the same city where jihadist rebels previously trashed an Armenian Church. On Monday, 13 Christian nuns were released after being held hostage for four months by rebels.

"This is the kind of thing that, although it's not universal by any means, it just scares the hell out of the Armenians," said Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of the blog Syria Comment.

"The general Christian community in Syria has supported the Assad regime because they fear Islamic fundamentalism, and that the Islamists would take over and then treat them as second-class citizens," Landis added.

"The Armenians have that fear in spades, or have that fear in a much more augmented form, because of their persecution in Anatolia and because [of] the holocaust."

By Anatolia, Landis was referring to the deep-rooted memory for Armenians in Syria of the massacre they faced in Turkey almost a century ago. Turkey was an early supporter of the rebels in the current conflict, which, Landis said, turned many Armenians against the anti-Assad uprising. Many of the foreign jihadist fighters flocking to Syria come via Turkey, including some Turks. In an interview earlier this year, Assad compared the killing of civilians by rebels in Syria to "the massacres perpetrated by the Ottomans against the Armenians when they killed a million and a half Armenians and half a million Orthodox Syriacs in Syria and in Turkish territory."

The men don't specifically discuss Turkey in the video. But in a comment on Kilajyan's now-inactive Facebook page, a friend called him "the turkish sluaghterer [sic]." Kilajyan wrote back: "I do anythink to portect my ppl." Kilajyan had also posted on Facebook that he was working with Syrian forces and Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group allied with Assad. Some of his posts marked his location as the sprawling northern metropolis of Aleppo, which remains one of the most fiercely fought over cities in Syria's war.

Normally, Landis said, Armenians try to "keep their heads down" in Syrian politics, and groups like the Armenian National Committee of America emphasize the broader community's neutrality in the conflict, arguing that Syrian Armenians are interested in survival, not politics. But, as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom noted in a 2013 report, neutrality has been dangerous for Syrian religious minorities, and circumstances have forced many to chose a side.

The report warned: "As these sectarian fissures deepen, it is increasingly likely that religious communities will be targeted not for their political allegiances, but solely for their religious affiliation."

The video of the two gang members was publicized by The Middle East Media Research Institute, a group that monitors and translates traditional and social media in the region.

Steven Stalinsky, the organization's executive director, said they posted the video because it offered something outside the norm: What appeared to be two Western foreign fighters allied with Assad, as opposed to the well-documented cases of war tourists joining the rebels.

"This was completely unique," Stalinsky said. "All the people that have gone there, whether they're from Europe or the handful of Americans, have gone to fight with the jihadists against Assad."

CNN reported, based on records provided by the Glendale Police Department, that Kilajyan and the other man in the video, identified as Sarou Madarian, were actually Syrian nationals deported from the U.S. back to Syria after run-ins with American law enforcement. Kilajyan was deported in 2012; Madarian in 2010.

The video shows a bizarre mixing of worlds; American gang signs and shout-outs amid the rubble of a foreign country's war.

"In Middle East, homie, in Syria, still gang-banging," Madarian tells the camera, displaying tattoos marking him as a member of Sureños-13, a gang affiliated with the Mexican Mafia and reportedly allied with Armenian Power.

"Frontline, homie. Frontline," Kilajyan tells the camera, gun in hand, smoking a cigarette beside a blown-out building. Both men then fire their rifles off at distant, unseen enemies.
"They looked totally like fish out of water," said Landis. "It makes the Syrian civil war come to America in a way that it doesn't every day."

In a statement, the FBI's Los Angeles bureau said the Joint Terrorism Task Force "is aware of the video and is investigating to determine any potential threat to Americans or to U.S. interests."

  • Alexander Trowbridge On Twitter»

    Alexander is a digital reporter for CBSNews.com. He previously worked as a multimedia reporter for POLITICO, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign.

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