As the civil war in Syria rages on, members of non-Arab minorities of this Middle Eastern country, notably Armenians, Kurds, Druze, and Circassians feel themselves increasingly caught in the crossfire and forced to take sides. Seeking to escape the bloody armed conflict between the supporters of the Assad regime and various factions of the anti-Assad opposition, Armenians have moved in relatively large numbers to their historical homeland, whereas Circassians have experienced problems in their efforts to repatriate to their native areas of the North Caucasus.
BACKGROUND: The Circassian – or Adyghe as Circassian peoples call themselves – Diaspora in what is now the Syrian Arab Republic was largely established in the second half of the 19th century. Back then, hundreds of thousands of Ubykh, Shapsugh, Abadzekh, Bzhadokh and other Circassian tribes traditionally inhabiting the highlands, foothills and plains of the Northwest Caucasus were either forced into exile to the Ottoman Empire by the Tsarist authorities or left their native land deliberately following the decisive occupation of the area by the Russian Army in the final years of the Greater Caucasus War (1817-1864) and shortly thereafter.
In the Ottoman Empire Circassians, esteemed as competent warriors and loyal Muslims, were settled in a range of contested areas in the Balkans, in Eastern Anatolia and in the Middle East to secure the Ottoman domain from the separatist aspirations of local Christians, the incursions of Bedouin tribes, or to keep an eye on the aspirations of the Kurds. From then on, Circassian communities have generally improved their positions in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan as loyal subjects, well-integrated into local societies, and holding relatively high positions particularly in the military and police of their host countries.
The first generations of the Circassians concentrated in ethnically homogenous settlements sticking fiercely to their ethnic tradition, for instance practicing Adyghe Khabze, the Circassian customary law, and preferring military careers over civil ones. Yet, the younger generations have moved to urban areas in large numbers and have adopted a less rigid view on strictly intra-Circassian marriages and ethnic tradition. They have diversified their career opportunities by becoming notable lawyers, physicians, architects, and artists. In general, they have formed influential and highly cemented Diaspora groups that have had a solid say in the internal, as well as external issues of their countries.
Only a share of the once large Circassian population of the 19th century remain settled in the Russian Federation after the massive population transfer during the attrition wars. Circassian communities in Russia amount to ca. 700,000, predominantly Kabardian, but also Cherkess (Circassian), and Abaza, in what is now the Krasnodar region, Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Around 100,000 Circassians inhabit Syria and a similar number are settled in Jordan. In contemporary Turkey, the number of Circassians is difficult to pin down. Estimates vary between 150,000 and 2 million due to a disregard for ethnicity in Turkish censuses and generations of mixed marriages.
Owing to its numbers and standing within society, Turkey’s Circassian Diaspora is considered the strongest outside the Russian Federation. In the past, it has demonstrated its commitment to defending the perceived interests of Circassians and their ethnic kin, Abkhazians, lobbying strongly in coalition with the country’s Abkhaz and Chechen Diasporas for the Abkhaz cause in the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993 and thereafter.
IMPLICATIONS: Although Syria's Circassians have traditionally been regarded as a sort of military cast famous for their loyalty to the regime and producing dozens of army and police top brass, their participation in the country’s military has been considerably reduced during the last two to three decades as leading positions were taken by the members of the ruling Alawi community. From the onset of the civil war Circassians, along with the Armenian, Kurdish, and Druze communities, have expressed their commitment to neutrality in the unfolding civil war.
Yet as the war efforts have intensified, they have increasingly been forced by both the proponents and opponents of the Assad regime to take sides, experiencing instances of violence from both sides. For instance, pro-regime military forces recently shelled a number of neutral Circassian villages in the Golan Heights where combatants of the Free Syrian Army were believed to have taken shelter, killing eight Circassians. Around 40 Circassians are believed to have been killed in the civil war, prompting an appeal by Syria’s Circassian community leaders to the Russian authorities to enable their return to their historical homeland. A number of Russia-based Circassian political organizations, backed by Turkey’s Circassian Diaspora, seek to assist in achieving this end, so far with little success.
So far, only 500 Syrian Circassians have been allowed to arrive in Kabardino-Balkaria, a North Caucasian republic with a majority Circassian (Kabardey) population, while around 200 Circassians were settled in Krasnodar’s Adyghea. However, thousands more seek to find refuge in their ancestral lands in the Northwest Caucasus. Russian authorities have pointed to formal obstacles: obtaining residence permits and citizenship for migrants from outside the post-Soviet republics is a particularly tough task. Additionally, Russia’s current migrant quota for all of the North Caucasian republics is just around 3,000.
In order to obtain residence permits, Syrian Circassians are expected to go through the same bureaucratic procedures as other foreigners seeking to enter the Russian Federation, which is a time and money-consuming effort. Another question is how the Syrian Circassians are supposed to exit the country given its harsh security situation and given the regime-imposed ban on men under 40 from leaving the country that still remains in force. In light of Moscow’s favorable relations with the Assad regime, they could relatively easily be evacuated by Russian aircraft, yet Moscow has hesitated to provide any such relief.
There are several reasons for Moscow’ skepticism against allowing the repatriation of large numbers of Syrian Circassians. A transfer of thousands of Circassians to the Northwest Caucasus might raise a range of socio-economic, political and demographic setbacks given the region’s vulnerability. Relations between Kabardino-Balkaria’s and Karachayevo-Cherkessia’s two major ethno-linguistic groups, Circassians on the one hand, and Turcophone Karachay-Balkars on the other, have seen significant tension due to the quest of both communities for political-administrative domination in their respective “dual” autonomous republics. Competition for land has been just one of the long-standing disputes between the members of both communities.
Since demographic prevalence has been intimately interwoven with a quest for political-administrative domination in the area, an influx of Syrian Circassians might cause serious discontent among Karachay-Balkars and Slavic groups, particularly Cossacks, which is not in Moscow’s interest. Importantly, many Russians consider the prospect of granting thousands of Syrian Circassians formal allowance to move to their historical homeland – and providing them with shelter, land, and employment – would set a problematic precedent for members of the demographically strong Circassian, Chechen and other North Caucasian communities based in Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region.
CONCLUSIONS: Additionally, like their kin in Turkey and elsewhere in the Diaspora, Syrian Circassians have gained fame for their strongly Russophobic sentiments. The collective memory of the 19th century wars, along with the bitter experience of deportation, has played a crucial role in their self-identification. Even before the start of hostilities in Syria, representatives of the Circassian Diaspora in the Middle East have pushed for international recognition of the 19th century atrocities as an act of genocide perpetrated by Russian colonial forces, questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The very location of the Olympics infrastructure, Krasnaya polyana, is a mass grave of thousands of Circassians, mainly women and children, who were massacred by the Russian Army in 1864. Importantly, members of the Circassian Diaspora have cooperated intensely with the Georgian authorities to pass a resolution by the Georgian parliament in May 2011, defining the tragic events of the 19th century as an act of genocide, while Russia-based Circassian political organizations are hesitant on the matter.
Finally, Syrian Circassians are considered a socially conservative group adhering closely to Islam and hence as culturally diverse from the current population of the Northwest Caucasus, which has undergone serious secularization and Russification. Coupled with the general mistrust in the local population that has gained momentum in Moscow recently (see the 03/02/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst), Russian authorities are seemingly concerned that part of the Circassian expatriots could join the ongoing Islamist insurgency in the crucial Northwest Caucasus, with its geographical proximity to the location of the 2014 Winter Olympics (see the 11/28/2012 issue of the CACI Analyst).
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Emil Souleimanov is assistant professor at the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. He is the author of Understanding Ethnopolitical Conflict: The Wars in Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia Reconsidered (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming in 2013) and An Endless War: The Russian-Chechen Conflict in Perspective (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2007).