Verify, then Verify Again
Verify, then Verify Again
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
Syria after the U.S. Strike: What Should Come Next
Armenak Tokmajyan speaks at a lecture on the Syria refugee crisis at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, on 7 October 2015. Daniel Vegel.
Impact Note / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Verify, then Verify Again

Six months into research fellowships made possible by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra, we catch up with three young experts now working with our Europe, Africa and Middle East teams. Here we talk to Armenak Tokmajyan, working on humanitarian dimensions of the Syrian war.

Researching the northern front of the Syria war for International Crisis Group, Giustra Fellow Armenak Tokmajyan faces a harrowing problem: the main city being destroyed in the fighting has been Aleppo, where he grew up and went to school, and where some of the people being forced out onto the road are his neighbours and friends.

Armenak feels a kind of survivor’s guilt, since, after many difficult years, he and his family are now safely outside the country. But he still feels passionately engaged with the fate of people still trapped in the five-year-old conflict, and is glad of any chance to help.

“So many others are suffering and didn’t have the same opportunities as me”, he said. “For me, fighting was not an option. I decided to leave the country and continue my education in conflict resolution. It makes me happy that I am now able to contribute, in my way, as a researcher”.

Armenak is one of three young regional research fellows who began work with International Crisis Group six months ago thanks to a $1 million gift by Canadian philanthropist and Crisis Group Trustee Frank Giustra. They are supporting all aspects of Crisis Group’s mission to prevent deadly conflict, with a focus on the refugee and migration crises. The aim of the two-year fellowships is to give first-hand experience of Crisis Group’s method of research and analysis through training and mentorship, and contribute to building greater capacity and expertise in the countries where Crisis Group works.

Reconnecting to a Changed Syria

Unable to return to northern Syria himself, because of the dangers and his lack of Syrian documentation, Armenak first sat down to enrich his knowledge of humanitarian work, refugees and the internally displaced. For four months, he combed through and commented on all the reports he could find that had been published on Syria and its neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, especially the many published by Crisis Group.

“I wished I could interact with the subjects of the reports”, he said. “But I was able to create a proper archive, so I really benefitted a lot. It was a period of reading and learning”.

Battles in Syria always have multiple narratives, and you have to get to the bottom of each one.

An initial period of brainstorming with his colleagues in Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program showed he was best placed to work on the internally displaced in north-west Syria. This is a delicate task, since it has to be done from outside. But it is an important one, since locals’ anxieties have risen sharply since the recapture of eastern Aleppo by government forces in December 2016. They fear the war could soon envelop this region too, especially after a devastating chemical attack in early April 2017.

Armenak began the patient, laborious process of building up a network of contacts. He had to start from scratch, because almost every single friend from his hometown of Aleppo had left. Many had become a refugee like himself: 5.8 million Syrians are now registered refugees and asylum seekers from a pre-war population or 23 million, according to the UN. Others had joined the displaced, a category that now includes more than one third of the 18 million people left inside Syria, most of them in government-controlled territory.

“The Program Director told me to use what he called ‘the tried and tested snowball method: call one person, and then ask that person for the names of two more people to call’”, Armenak said. “I can’t go back to Syria myself because I am technically a foreigner. I lived in Syria for fifteen years but never got the nationality. But I can make calls by Skype, connect with people on Twitter, follow people on Facebook. It really takes time to get to know people”.

As he began gathering the pieces of a puzzle that will one day become a Crisis Group Report – the long-form, densely footnoted publication that lays the foundations of the expertise of all our conflict analysts – he says he made another conceptual breakthrough that he hadn’t expected.

Critical Thinking

“What I am really happy about is the critical thinking”, he said. “There is this culture I found in Crisis Group. All my MENA Program colleagues are making me think through things the way they do. They taught me not just to find a piece of information, but then also to check it with one person, then another, then online. And then to think about it, re-think it, analyse it, re-analyse it, map it, articulate ideas about it. I am working in an environment where researchers are very keen to provide accurate information and useful analysis. Such verification is very hard, but fruitful and valuable. Now I’ve started implementing it myself, it makes a real difference”.

One example came as Armenak followed the fighting for control of his old home town. During the government-imposed siege there was heavy bombardment of eastern Aleppo, a devastating campaign that international media covered extensively. But he was surprised to discover the extent that western Aleppo was hit as well. Going beyond the coverage of international media and talking to locals in the western side was crucial to verify what contacts kept telling him: that the opposition was also firing dozens of rockets that hit civilian areas every day.

“Battles in Syria always have multiple narratives, and you have to get to the bottom of each one”, Armenak said. “People might think double checking is a common practice. I would argue otherwise. Even well-covered stories can be very simplified by the media”.

Armenak has learned to be careful with internet videos. “Sometimes videos are not rightly referenced or located, you can even find fabricated ones. Syrians are quick to learn but most people don’t have the professional training of a reporter. Yesterday a friend of mine posted a good quality video of a brand new [Russian] SU 34 bombing Idlib. The previous tweet had said: ‘Here is the Syrian Air Force, bombing Idlib’. But Syria doesn’t have SU 34s”.

I am working in an environment where researchers are very keen to provide accurate information and useful analysis. Such verification is very hard, but fruitful and valuable.

Idlib, an opposition-held province in north-western Syria, is Armenak’s particular research focus because IDPs make up half of the 1.8 million people the UN says are living there. His preliminary findings show that Idlib’s communities have independent human potential and local civilian structures that are worthy of stronger international support. New fighting, on the other hand, could force these increasingly nervous people over the nearby Turkish border to become dependent refugees.

“The most skilled interviewer can’t get the same information as actually being there, but I’ve learned how to get closer. I asked one person, ‘Can you get shawarma and falafel on each corner?’ My contact laughingly replied, ‘Nobody ever asked me that question before!’”, he said. “Knowing the answer helped me understand how much life in that part of Syria had returned to normal. Other important questions are social ones: Are IDPs excluded? Do they have ghettos? Do they mix in? You quickly learn that all places are different”.

Armenak Tokmajyan was born in the Republic of Armenia and was raised and educated in Aleppo and Damascus, and speaks Arabic, English and Armenian. He was previously at the Shattuck Center on Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery at the Central European University, where he focused on the conflict in Aleppo as a Holbrooke Fellow. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and a Diploma in Fine Arts from Syria. He received his Master’s Degree in Finland from the University of Tampere’s Program in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research.

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