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As the violence in Syria rages on, an underreported struggle is taking place over the country’s Circassian community, which has increasingly come under fire as tensions between the Bashar al-Assad regime and opposition forces escalate. With the Assad regime apparently no longer able to ensure the Circassians’ protection, many are turning to Russia, their ancestral homeland, as a safe haven – something the Kremlin may be keen to exploit.
Their ethnic roots dug into Russia’s multicultural North Caucasus, the Circassians were pushed out of the region after a bloody campaign against them by Imperial Russia in the late 19th century. Most were either slaughtered or became displaced from their homeland, winding up in such far-flung locales as Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Those who remained were scattered throughout the northwest region of the Caucasus, populating today’s Russian republics of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
Yet the Circassians also wound up in Syria, where they number anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000, according to various reports. They have played a key role in Assad’s Syria, where as an ethnic minority they enjoyed a degree of protection on behalf of the regime and its minority-friendly policies. According to Caucasus expert Oliver Bullough, the Circassians have also traditionally been heavily represented in the Syrian military, with a substantial amount populating officers’ ranks and further boosting their reputation as a fiercely loyal nation.
But now, as the embattled Assad government faces a protracted civil war against an unpredictable opposition, the Circassians are looking for an exit. A Russian fact-finding mission to Syria, comprised mainly of Federation Council members from Russia’s North Caucasian republics, recently found up to 300 families are considering fleeing, citing the grave risks posed by ongoing violence and threats from opposition forces. With few other options, they are looking to their ancestral Caucasian homeland. However, Albert Kazharov, a senator from Kabardino-Balkaria and a key member of the delegation, noted that securing documents and safe passage for Syrian Circassians would be a daunting task, RIA Novosti reported.
If the Circassians had earlier felt safe as an ethnic minority under Assad’s rule, the civil strife there is quickly changing this. Activists found that not only are anti-Assad forces allegedly issuing threats against Circassians for their cooperation with the regime, but the regime itself is making it difficult for them to flee the violence. “Syrian Circassians are afraid to talk openly about relocation because of the harshness of the Syrian security services,” Adam Bogus, a Circassian from Adygea and a member of the mission, told the Caucasian Knot newspaper on March 21. “They can be punished straight away. Under the wartime regime, there are no proper investigative and legal procedures. People who fall under suspicion of disloyalty to the authorities are killed.”
The Circassian issue has also been closely connected to Russia’s firm position on Syria, which until only recently saw Moscow clashing with the West over intervention. Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov noted that Moscow is concerned not only about the dangers of foreign intervention in Syria, but also about the consequences of arming an opposition it fears would oppress both the Christian and Circassian minorities. “Both of these groups support Bashar al-Assad 100 percent, because they fear the opposition would be very militant, very tough and very aggressive against minorities,” he said. “They’re asking Russia not to give up on Bashar al-Assad, because he’s a major protector of minorities in Syria.”
But experts said the Russian position may be based more on ulterior motives formed by the possible consequences inside Rusia’s own borders. With large parts of the Russian Circassian community up in arms about the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi, which are supposed to take place on a territory remembered by the Circassians as the site of a 19th century imperial massacre, the Kremlin may be attempting to appease them by offering shelter to their ethnic kin, said Bullough, a Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
“They’re playing quite a dangerous game, because they’ve got to keep the Circassians in Russia happy, and I think [the Russian delegation’s] trip was more aimed at them than at Circassians in Syria,” he said of the visit. “The guys in the Federation Council – the people who rely on Moscow for their positions – have got to start trying to play the game and figure out a way to make Moscow look more like a champion of Circassian interests, and this is a good way to do that.”
Bullough added that the Circassian community’s growing sense of interconnectedness over recent years has given the diaspora in Russia a sense of urgency over the plight of their brethren abroad. “This issue is getting a degree of traction just because there are Circassians outside who are trying to keep it in the news,” he said. As an example, Bullough pointed to the small Ciracassian community in Israel: “When [people in their 40s] were growing up, the only contact they had with Circassians outside of Israel was half an hour of airtime every Sunday on Syrian radio. Now, they’ve got satellite TV stations, they’ve got Web sites, they’ve got online radio – everything. The effect that that’s had has been astonishing – people are really very active and very involved in stitching their nation back together.”
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