As Syria’s conflict escalates, questions abound over the fate of the Baathist country’s multiethnic constituents. For Syria’s small but significant Circassian minority, they want to go home.
By Brittany Pheiffer
One hundred and fifty years after their expulsion from the North Caucasu, one community of the Circassian diaspora is trying to come back to their ancestral homeland. At least a thousand of the more than 100,000 ethnic Circassians living in Syria have expressed a tentative commitment to repatriating to Russia if — but more ideally when – the opportunity arises. It is likely that even more are hoping to leave Syria but fear publically expressing their desire for repatriation. Circassian NGOs in Russia and throughout Europe are coming together to galvanize federal support for the quick repatriation of Syrian Circassians before the conflict in Syria worsens. After months of meetings, committees, attempted rallies and failed appeals, it looks as though the possibility of repatriation is now starting to materialize.When the Syrian Circassians first appealed for help seven months ago, the Russian government responded that the situation in Syria did not call for Russian intervention (in all matters relating to Syria, Russia has been opposed to outside intervention, to say the least). However, the political and economic life of Syrian Circassians has been increasingly destabilized and Moscow now seems to be warming up to talks of repatriation. On December 25th, 115 Circassians living in Syria sent an appeal to Medvedev for assistance as the Syrian situation worsened. Three days later, another 57 Syrian Circassians addressed Russian federal and regional leaders with specific requests for resettlement to the historically Circassian areas of the North Caucasus (namely, the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, and Karachay–Cherkessia).
At the same time, the coalition of Circassian NGOs created a commission specifically dedicated to the project of repatriating Syrian Circassians. Despite hitting dead ends in their repeated appeals to the leader of Adygea, the commission has succeeded in facilitating discussions with Moscow and other regional leaders. In particular, a delegation of Circassian representatives from Syria — unidentified for security reasons — met with Medvedev in person on January 31st in another sign of accelerating prospects for repatriation. Meanwhile, leaders in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (where the majority of Russian Circassians live) have met with the Syrian delegation and spoken optimistically of imminent repatriation. On Feburary 11, over a thousand activists met in Maikop in the Russian Republic of Adygea to discuss the problem of their Circassion brethren in Syria. Six days later, in light of the momentum the cause has finally achieved, the Russian government told the news agency RBK its most promising statement yet: that it “is carefully examining the address by the republic of Adygea to the Federal Assembly about assisting the Syrian Circassians to return to their historical homeland.” So even if Moscow has not yet said yes, they still haven’t said no either.
The Circassians of Syria primarily reside in Damscus, Aleppo, and Homs, all areas seriously affected by the current troubles in Syria. The Circassians (who call themselves the Adyghe) see themselves as one of the oldest indigenous cultures in the North Caucasus and, while they never formed a coherent unified nation state or kingdom in the way that Georgia or Armenia have, they maintained their linguistic, ethnic, and cultural identity through centuries of invasion, migration, and occupation. The Russian-Circassian war of the 1860s is largely the reason for the current population’s residence in the Levant, as the Russian campaign aimed to push out any surviving Circassians into the Ottoman Empire after their violent defeat. Most of them settled in Turkey or the Balkans, with some traveling as far as Syria and Jordan. However, as the Ottoman Empire lost control of the Balkans, Circassians increasingly migrated to the Levant, especially after in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Conflicts throughout the region steadily pushed Circassians into Syria, with immigration leveling off after the First World War, when the last major wave of Circassians from Turkey settled in Syria. Overall, much of the Circassian diaspora community has called Syria home for the better part of a century and must now decide whether a notional homeland in the Russian Federation is better than a more familiar but endangered one in Syria.
While the Circassians claim to have had their own indigenous monotheistic religion until the 5th century, they were Christianized in waves under Byzantine and Georgian influence, and then from the 13th through the 19th century underwent a process of Islamization under the influence of the Mamluks, Persians, and Ottoman Turks. At present, they are almost entirely Sunni Muslim and have typically enjoyed social prestige and economic prosperity in their host countries. Speaking generally, Circassian culture greatly values military service and Circassians have found themselves in the high ranks of the armed forces of various nations. For this reason, it was all the more shocking when, on December 29, a video was posted on Youtube purporting to announce the defection of a Circassian lieutenant in the Syrian army, which, if authentic, would be the first such public act by a Circassian soldier.
Unlike many of the political and ethnic disputes raging in the Caucasus, the issue at hand is not whether the Circassians actually have a claim to the land of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic of the Republic of Agygea. To date, no one denies that the Circassians are hoping to return to a place that is indeed their historical homeland. However, their claims to an ancient homeland are complicated by Russia’s stance on the conflict in Syria. If Circassians are repatriated specifically because of a perceived threat in Syria, Russia doesn’t want to give any ammunition to its Western critics who have been avidly protesting Russia’s anti-interventionist stance. Amongst regional leaders and Circassian activists, the question of repatriation is being framed as a question not only of humanitarian aid, but of brotherhood and solidarity, appealing to the ancient and deep-seated ethical code and tribal community of the Circassians. Such appeals to homeland, solidarity and, in some degree, to cultural autonomy may be an alternative justification for a Circassian return that doesn’t point a finger too explicitly at Syrian violence and instability.
The impediments to leaving Syria are not only a matter of obtaining Russian citizenship. The political unrest in Syria has made it impossible for people to sell property and so Syrian Circassians are hoping to maintain dual Russian-Syrian citizenship so that they could potentially return to Syria to sell or reclaim the property they leave behind. Beslan Khagazhei, an activist working for repatriation with the government of the KBR, has stated that Turkey, the U.S., Canada, and Georgia have already made offers to open their borders to the Circassian community of Syria. Of the four offers, the Turkish proposal is considered the least appealing as it would require Circassians to register as ethnic Turks, a concession they are not prepared to make. The North Caucasus, despite its own internal instabilities and economic under-development, remains the ideal destination for the Circassian community at present. The Georgian offer, while less demanding than the Turkish one, provoked little reaction of any sort from the Circassian diaspora, who seem themselves in cultural, historical, linguistic, and ethnic solidarity with the Cherkess peoples of the North Caucasus (including Abkhazians), but not with Georgians. The offer itself is indicative of Georgia’s project to play on minority solidarity in the Caucasus vis-a-vis perceived Russian hegemony — in fact, in a very pointed attack at Russia, Georgia became the first country to recognize the massacre of Circassians by the Russian army in the Russo-Circassian War as a genocide. While the gesture garnered approval from a number of Circassian NGO’s, Circassian sights are still set on Russia as the solution to the problems of their community in Syria, despite some reports of please for asylum in Georgia from Syrian Circassians. It remains to be seen whether Moscow will risk Western cries of hypocrisy to support the Syrian Circassians or if in increasingly desperate times, the Circassian community will start to forge stronger ties with other nations and shift the lines of minority allegiance in the Caucasus.
On a practical and relatively unpolitical level, the repatriation of Syrian Circassians falls in line with existing Russian policies towards encouraging repatriation of groups with historical connections to Russian territory, especially in underpopulated areas. While present-day Russia can scarcely boast the kind of aggressive repatriation projects that the Soviet Union undertook to increase the population after the staggering losses of the First and Second World Wars, it has consistently reached out to Russians abroad in efforts to win them back to their homeland. For the most part, the state has focused on luring ethnic Russians, especially Old Believers. However, by welcoming moderate Muslims with a history of non-violence and semi-assimilation, the Russian state may have an opportunity to establish a base of strong political allegiance in the North Caucasus. An influx of Circassians who are internationally connected and personally committed to stability in the region could mark an important shift in the dynamics of power and compromise between Moscow and the North Caucasus.