President Bashar al-Assad is increasingly losing the support of the Circassian community many of whose members serve in his army and police. Such is the case of Yaser Ali Abaza, a Syrian Circassian lieutenant who, in a video posted to the Internet on December 29, openly established that he had defected from the Syrian Interior Ministry political units and joined the rebellion battalion under the command of General Khalid Ibn al Waleed (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwU85ahlyxk).
The situation for the Circassian community in Syria has been dangerous for some time. In June 2011, several Circassian organizations in the Russian regions of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia wrote an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev asking for help for their compatriots in Syria (www.elot.ru, June 21). Then, the Syrian Circassians themselves did not dare to raise their voice openly because of the Kremlin’s support for the Damascus regime. At the time, Russian officials replied that “the situation in the Circassian community in Syria does not require actions from Russia” (www.adygi.ru, July 30). In November, 31 Circassian families privately applied through their relatives for permits to move to Russia.
In the middle of December, 115 Syrian Circassians signed an open letter to Russia asking for “help and rescue,” stating that “there is no hope for stabilization and peace in Syria.” Two days later, another 57 people joined them (www.echo.msk.ru/blog/cknot/844270-echo). The letter stated: “The Syrian Circassians are in a desperate position. Every day, we are risking our lives” (www.aheku.org/page-id-2771.html). The Syrian Circassians dared to make the open statement after Russia’s criticism of Damascus in a draft United Nations resolution on December 15 prompted hundreds of thousands of Syrians to take the streets the next day against President Bashar al-Assad (www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/16/).
Kase Kik, the leader of Circassian Congress in Karachaevo-Cherkessia, wrote a letter to President Medvedev asking him to help the Syrian Circassians the way Moscow in 1998, during the conflict in Yugoslavia, helped the Circassians from Kosovo to be repatriated to Russia (www.elot.ru/main/mambots/editors/). In his interview with the Kavkazsky Uzel (Caucasian Knot) website, Kik said that “many Circassians are afraid of openly asking for repatriation to Russia because the [existing regime] may label them as traitors and repress them” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198339/).
On December 19, the International Circassian Association (ICA) held a meeting in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria. A commission under the leadership of Mamduh Kumuk, a refugee from Syria, presented the government with a list of arrangements necessary to help the Syrian Circassians. Boris Pashtov, a member of the government of Kabardino-Balkaria, participated in the meeting (www.elot.ru, December 23). On December 27, Aslan Tkhakushinov, the governor of Adygeia, expressed his concern about the situation in Syria and his readiness “to approach Russian officials with a request to consider the possibility of repatriating representatives of the Circassian diaspora” (www.adygheya.ru/press/news/). The next day, the parliament of Adygeia made a similar statement (www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2011/12/28/929704.html). On December 29, twenty organizations gathered in an emergency meeting of the Counsel of the Circassian Organizations of Russia and made similar statements to the Russian president, the speakers of the houses of the Russian parliament, and the leaders of the Caucasian regions (www.elot.ru, December 29). The next day, a meeting in solidarity with the Syrian Circassians took place in Takhtamukai, a village in Adygeia, under the slogan “May All Circassians Be United” (www.natpress.ru, December 31).
Naima Nefliasheva, a scholar from the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Kavkazsky Uzel that the opportunity to help the Syrian Circassians presents a unique chance for Russia to strengthen its authority in the world. However, she said that if Russia ignores the request of the Circassians “and leaves them alone at these hard times, the opportunity will be certainly used by other countries that already are ahead of Russia on the ‘Circassian question’” (adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198463).
The Circassian community in Syria, with a population of up to 150,000, lives in the towns of Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, Latakia and 22 villages. They are the descendants of emigrants expelled from the Caucasus after the Russian-Caucasian war in the middle of nineteenth century. Circassians have traditionally served in the Syrian army and police, accounting for up to 35 Circassian ranking generals at the end of the twentieth century. Under Bashar al-Assad, the Circassians have become politically closer to the regime, a Circassian general having at one point been named minister of internal affairs. In October 2007, Bashar al-Assad and his wife met with the members of the Circassian Benevolent Association of Damascus (www.natpress.net, October 9, 2007). Today, Mutasim Gotuk, the minister of sports, and Sharaf Abaza, a member of Syria’s parliament, are Circassians.
However, Anzor Kushkhabiev, a Circassian historian and author of the book Circassians in Syria, notes that “most Circassians in the contemporary Syrian army are middle-ranking officers who do not have any influence on the political decisions, and it would be wrong to regard the Circassians as a pillar of the regime” (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/198339/). The Circassian community is an active civil society with a dense network of benevolent associations. In spite of the fact that the Internet is restricted in Syria, there are several Circassian websites in Arabic including www.sharakes.net, www.adiga.org, and www.cnnadiga.com.