A village whose people trace their roots back to the North Caucasus was among the first targets of the Russian air strikes in Syria. On September 30, the first day of the air strikes, Voice of America journalist Fatima Tlisova cited reports from Syrian sources that three ethnically North Caucasian villages were hit, but said that while the reports about two of them being hit were contradictory, various sources confirmed that a third, village, Deir Ful, had been hit (Facebook.com/fatima.tlis, September 30). Deir Ful was originally a Dagestani village, but reportedly later became predominantly Circassian. Deir Ful residents were known for their opposition to both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic State. Russian jets evidently targeted the village for its opposition to al-Assad even though no Islamic State forces were anywhere near it (Caucasreview.com, September 30).
Ethnic North Caucasians ended up in the Middle East mostly after the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus in the 19th century. Russia’s tsars either deported North Caucasians to the Ottoman Empire, as in the case of the Circassians, or encouraged the Muslims of the North Caucasus to emigrate, as in the case of the Dagestanis, Chechens, Muslim Ossetians and others. The Ottoman Empire resettled refugees from the North Caucasus in various parts of its vast territory. An estimated 100,000 ethnic Circassians lived in Syria prior to the civil war. Syria’s Dagestani population is far smaller and less known. The bombing of Deir Ful prompted journalists at the Kavkazskaya Politika news agency to interview a Syrian Dagestani immigrant from the village named Shafi Akushali.
Akushali went to study in Dagestan in 1991 and remained in Russia ever since, eventually becoming a successful businessman. According to Akushali, Dagestani Muhajirs (immigrants) founded the village of Deir Ful after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877–1878. A majority of the founders of the village were ethnic Kumyks from Dagestan. Kumyks are a Turkic-speaking people who reside across the North Caucasus, but especially in Dagestan, Stavropol region, Chechnya and North Ossetia. Later, other Dagestani ethnic groups, such as Avars, Laks, Dargins and Dagestani Turks, joined them. Akushali said that the people of Syria wanted political reforms, but were opposed to violence. Many Syrians of North Caucasian origin are fighting against the forces of the Islamic State organization and the al-Nusra Front and are more than happy that Russian forces started to strike at these organizations, Akushali asserted. (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 8).
Other sources in Syria told the Kavkazsky Uzel news agency that Syrian government forces along with Russian jets launched strikes against Deir Ful and at the very least destroyed some buildings, if not caused casualties. One of the villagers told Kavkazsky Uzel: “People do not support the Islamic State. There is a small number of people who disagree with the government, but the people of my village did not interfere in these issues. However, they began to bombard us. Most of our village is destroyed, many young people died earlier. And those who survived have escaped the war and emigrated. The village is under the control of the Free Syrian Army” (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 8).
Since the Russian government unexpectedly intervened in the Syrian conflict, Russian state media and many Russian analysts have boasted of the superior military might of the country’s forces. However, ethnic Circassians, and Dagestanis, are increasingly saying it is time for Moscow also to help people of North Caucasian origin in Syria. A Circassian activist from Adygea, Adam Bogus, said that four civilian Circassians were recently killed by Syrian government artillery, but that the Russian Embassy in Damascus refuses to accept visa-related documents. Russian human rights activists planned to raise the issue of Circassian refugees from Syria at President’s Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the Presidential Council of Human Rights, on October 1, but officials reportedly removed this issue from the agenda (Kavkazsky Uzel, October 8).
Shafi Akushali, the Dagestani Syrian émigré in Russia, said his parents are stuck in Jordan and he cannot help them. “I am trying to bring my parents to Dagestan,” he said. “They are now in Jordan. The Federal Migration Service (FMS) requires that my parents receive their visas in Damascus. But my parents cannot return to Syria. Alternatively, the FMS requires a document that shows my parents work in Jordan. However, the government of Jordan has issued an unofficial decree that no Syrian refugee can be issued a work permit in the country.” The Syrian émigré complained that the Russian government makes it virtually impossible to immigrate to Russia from Syria and that the Dagestani authorities have no interest whatsoever in helping their kin in the Middle East (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 8).
On October 7, the largest demonstration to date demanding the repatriation of Circassians from Syria took place in Cherkessk, Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Over 200 Circassian activists held placards declaring, among other things: “Return Circassians Home!” and “Russia, Save the Circassians of Syria.” Circassian activists have emphasized their support for Russian actions in Syria, but reminded the authorities that the Circassians and other ethnic North Caucasians need to be repatriated from war-torn Syria (Kavkazskaya Politika, October 8).
Thus, Moscow’s increasing involvement in the Syrian civil war is leading to stepped-up demands by Circassian activists that people of North Caucasian origin be repatriated from Syria. Thus far, the Russian government has refused to pay attention to the plight of the Syrian Circassians, but it may eventually be forced to actually come out and state its official position on the issue.