By Matthew Hedges and Dr. Theodore Karasik
Circassians are historically a people from three republics (Kabardino Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygheya) in modern day Russia and they are made up of twelve tribes; Abadzah, Besleney, Bzhedug, Yegeruqay, Zhaney, Karbady, Mamheg, Natuhay, Temirgoy, Ubyh, Shapsug, Hatuqwai. Following the Russian-Circassian war in the 18th and 19th Century, the majority of Circassians were either killed or driven from their homeland. Currently, a sizeable number of Circassians live in the Middle East with the majority living in Turkey however sizeable communities are found in Syria, Jordan and Israel.
The role of Circassians in Syria is of considerable strategic importance because of the growing recognition of this ethnic group in Russian foreign relations towards Syria. Circassians in Syria, as in other Middle Eastern nations, willingly enlist in the security apparatus of their present home country and as a result are often associated with the regime in power. By the end of the 20th century the Circassians had accounted for 35 ranking generals and one Minister of Internal Affairs (Major General Bassem Abdel Majeed). For over a year there has been serious civil unrest, recently bordering on civil war, with all sectors of life threatened by the conflict. Conflict has centered on the historical trouble spot of Homs with the conflict spreading to a number of other cities. The Circassians in Syria number around 100,000 and primarily reside in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.
Even though Circassians are Sunni Muslims, because of their affiliation to the Syrian regime due to their role within the security apparatus, they are viewed with suspicion from all ways of life (Syrian Counter intelligence also viewing them with suspicion because they are Sunni Muslims like the majority of the opposition). As a multiplying effect the Circassians are a non-Arab ethnicity present in a secular Arab country and are further viewed with suspicion. As a result of heightened conflict between pro-Assad forces and the opposition movement the Circassians are wary of opposition forces taking power and are looking at options to leave Syria. The Circassians in Syria have hesitated to en-mass declare the desire to be repatriated to their historical homeland, or to other countries that have offered assistance.
For Russia, to repatriate the Syrian Circassian community would firstly admit that the Syrian state is disintegrating and would go against the Kremlin’s present rhetoric in regards to Syria. Secondly the ethnic demographic would greatly shift in the Caucasus with large numbers of Circassians returning to their homeland. Thirdly repatriating the Circassians would greatly alter and disrupt relations between the different Northern Caucasian republics and might ignite national pride and rivalry between them and current ethnic residents, specifically Karachai-Balkars. Fourth, as a political issue there is growing anti-Russian sentiment within the Circassian community because of the Winter Olympic Games that are being held in, what is termed, “the Circassian city of Sochi,” with the main stadium residing over the graves of those slain by the Russians in the Russian-Circassian war. Russian-Circassian relations are not the strongest and will inevitably dampen, possibly, with the 2014 Russian Winter Olympics soon approaching. These issues are a very delicate matter and would greatly influence relations one way or another.
The exploitation of this subject for foreign powers, namely Georgia, Turkey and the U.S. is of huge interest from the Russian point of view. Georgia under President Saakashvili, is vehemently opposed to Russian hegemony in the Caucuses and is a strong ally of the United States. A number of Abhazians (an ethnic group with close connections to the Circassians and claimed to be part of Georgia) were also involved in the Russian-Circassian war of the 18th and 19th centuries and President Saakashvili utilizes this point to justify Georgian assistance for the Circassians. On May 20, 2011 Georgia became the first nation to recognise the genocide of ethnic Circassians in the Russian-Circassian wars. Furthermore, Georgia recognizes Circassians as refugees. This Georgian decision was a political jab at Russia for recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian territory. In a speech at the UN General Assembly in 2010, Georgian President Saakashvili claimed that there will be a ‘United Caucusus’ with Ibragim Yaganov, Chairman of the public movement Khase of Kabardino-Balkaria and a prominent Circassian fighter for the Abkhazian’s against the Georgians claimed that Georgia would become the ‘Circassian window of Europe’. This affinity that the Georgians are hoping to show with their Caucasian brothers highlights the emotional link of brotherhood and solidarity against Russian aggression. Circassians however traditionally don’t align themselves with Georgia, but in light of recent warming relations between Georgia and the republics of the North Caucuses, an affinity is arising. One key example of these warming relations is the visa free travel of residents from the North Caucuses and Russia to Georgia.
Turkey has also commented on the predicament the Circassians of Syria. Turkey, home to the largest community of Circassians in the world, has offered repatriation to Syrian-based Circassians. The main condition, and what is most detrimental to their repatriation effort, is that the Syrian Circassians would have to register as ethnic Turks, something that the majority of Syrian Circassians are not be willing to do. As Turkey is home to the majority of the global Circassian community it is a country where they can feel content in their role in society. In addition, the U.S. and Canada are both contemplating the idea of Syrian Circassian repatriation, however this is only to apply pressure on Russia and to exploit the issue should Russia not handle it appropriately.
The issue of “tribes” also appears in the plight of the Syrian Circassians. Currently, the role of tribal affiliation is of the most importance to the Assad regime in a time of such uncertainty, yet it is also through tribal links that support has been drummed up against the Assad regime. In a show of appreciation to Russia for their handling of Syria on the international stage, the Assad regime coerced Syrian tribal Sheikhs to meet the Russian Ambassador to Syria and offered with gifts. In Georgia, President Saakashvili claims a “tribal affiliation” with the Syrian Circassians (specifically those from Abkhazia) in a bid for political leverage.
Russia has repatriated groups who have roots to Russia, especially in sparely populated areas. The Northern Caucuses have witnessed years of Islamic insurgency and an aggressive Counter Terrorism campaign, particularly in Karbadino-Balkaria, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan. The return of a group of moderate Muslims, having lived in a secular Syria, would allow Russia to re-connect with many of these groups from the North Caucuses and nurture a political relationship much akin to that in modern day Chechnya with Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. But in a show of force, the Kremlin is making life difficult for Circassians. Circassians of Turkish nationality living in the North Caucuses have been arrested for not relinquishing their Turkish citizenship. There are also numerous examples of Russian harassment of Circassian populations in the Northern Caucuses and could be part of Russian policy to deter Circassians from returning en-masse to their homeland.
In the same way that the Syrian opposition assemble primarily through tribal connections, the Circassians are a single unit within the Syrian military and desertions are kept to a minimum. Through the Circassian community elders, they are keeping a united front, with Circassian repatriation already happening but largely against the course of the greater Circassian community. Open letters have been written to the Russian government with the help of Circassian organizations, tribal leaders and councillors from their respective home regions.
Clearly, Russia will likely face a huge problem with the Circassian issue as the current regime in Syria crumbles. Russia needs to make a decision to get on the correct side of history. Russia’s support for Syria is clearly problematic and is causing the Kremlin to be alienated from much of the region. Russia’s role in Lebanon and Iran has caused ties to freeze with much of the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia. Overall, the issue of the Circassians is a long dispute for Russia that is now arising to prominence. Given the problems in the Caucasus today, Russia will not want to add another problem by misplaying the Circassian card. If repatriation were not to happen, it may very well further inflame anti-Russian sentiment in the Northern Caucusus. Although the Circassians, to date, have been immune to strict “Vahhabist” teachings that the Chechens and Dagestani’s have been influenced by, regional nationalist tendencies without the religious agenda may erupt in the Northern Caucasus. This phenomenon is part of the “Syria effect” that will not only impact Russia but many other countries surrounding current day Syria.