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.
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."