With Syria Crisis, North Caucasians Rediscover Ethnic Ties

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 13 Issue: 16

On July 18, Circassians activists from several countries, including Russia’s North Caucasus, called on the Circassian and Caucasian organizations to focus on helping the Syrian Circassians. The Circassians in the North Caucasus celebrate August 1 as Repatriate’s Day, and the celebrations this year are bound to be celebrated with an ever greater sense of urgency because of the Syrian crisis. An estimated 350 Syrian Circassians have relocated to the North Caucasus in recent months as violence in the Middle Eastern country expanded, but many more may need help (https://circassiatimes.com/russian/485-01.08.2012-den-podderzhki-siriyskih-cherkesov-obraschenie-k-cherkesskim-i-kavkazskim-organizaciyam.html). On July 26, Adygean civil organizations decided to set up a coordination council that would address the most pressing issues the constituencies of the civil organizations face. The Syrian Circassians’ question was one of the central issues discussed at the meeting of Circassian, Russian, Armenian and other ethnic organizations of Adygea (https://adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/210378/).

Meanwhile, the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria prompted neighboring countries to expand their assistance to the 115,000 refugees from Syria who have sought safety outside their war-torn country. Iraq and Jordan joined Turkey in an effort to provide them with shelter. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia launched a campaign in support of the Syrian refugees by donating $5 million (https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1987011). Although Russia continues to adamantly support the Assad regime in Syria, some sources report that Russian military intelligence specialists who were deployed on the Golan Heights and in other parts of Syria along the border with Israel have dismantled their equipment and are being relocated closer to the Mediterranean coast. Observers perceived this move as a sign of reduced confidence on the part of the Russian government in Assad’s ability to survive the turmoil in Syria (https://izrus.co.il/dvuhstoronka/article/2012-07-25/18549.html).

Apart from the foreign policy dilemmas, the Syrian crisis clearly has domestic implications for Moscow. In particular, some Russian analysts believe that relocating Syrian Circassians to the North Caucasus and the corresponding increase of the Circassians’ influence in the areas adjacent to the city of Sochi could obstruct the 2104 Winter Olympic Games. Moscow is worried that its direct rival in the region, Georgia, is also supportive of Circassian initiatives – in particular, their opposition to the 2014 Olympics. The Kremlin is reportedly also afraid to yield to any popular demands from “below,” at the regional level, since it is regarded as “encouragement of separatism.” As one analyst put it: “The authorities in Moscow try to limit ethnicity to folklore and fear acknowledging ethnicity as a political factor, although this has happened already in all republics of the North Caucasus and beyond. So that ‘blood’ relations are now more important than social class or ideological affinities” (https://nazaccent.ru/content/5029-cherkesskij-skelet-v-kremlevskom-shkafu.html).

The exact number of Circassians in Syria is unknown: according to different estimates, there are anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people of Circassian descent living in Syria. If the violence in Syria continues, increasingly more Syrian Circassians will want to relocate to their historical homeland in the North Caucasus. According to Paul Goble, this would inevitably further jeopardize an already precarious equilibrium in the volatile region. Bashar Assad reportedly had close relations with the Circassian minority in Syria and so if the regime falls or is otherwise unable to protect the Circassians, the Circassians will look to Assad’s primary backer, Russia, for help. If Russia does not help, it will evoke an immense protest reaction among the Circassians, according to Circassian analyst Sufian Zhemukhov. So Moscow is deeply interested in strengthening Assad’s regime prior to the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 (https://www.golos-ameriki.ru/content/russia-syria-and-olympics/1418572.html).

The massive relocation of Syrian Circassians might indeed change the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus and increase the possibility of conflict in the long run. Were Moscow to allow the repatriation of Circassians from Syria now, however, it is unlikely the influx of refugees would increase turmoil in the North Caucasus. For one thing, the Circassians would appreciate Moscow’s help for relocating their brethren from the Middle East. In addition, because of the scope of the problem, the Circassians would greatly depend on Moscow financially in resettling the new arrivals. Finally, the resettling process itself could take so much effort that little energy might be left for any other political activism, so Moscow would face far fewer demands and questions from the Circassians in the run up to 2014. However, even if there were no Olympics in Sochi, Moscow would likely oppose any significant influx of repatriates to the North Caucasus, since isolation of the region from the outside world is one of the pillars of the policy Moscow has pursued there. Allowing any significant number of foreigners to resettle in the region would undermine Moscow’s current policy.

The Syrian Circassian issue is unexpectedly spreading across the North Caucasus. Earlier in July, an official representative of the Chechen government claimed ethnic Chechens in Syria also wanted to relocate to Chechnya (https://www.checheninfo.ru/13292-bezhency-iz-sirii-nahodyat-ubezhische-na-severnom-kavkaze.html). Later, the North Ossetian state TV station Alania broke the news that the Ossetian diaspora in Syria wants to relocate to North Ossetia. The head of the Ossetian organization in Syria, Khisham Albegaty, told the TV station in a telephone interview that the situation in Syria, especially in Damascus, had deteriorated significantly in the past two to three months. The estimated 700-strong Ossetian diaspora in Syria appealed to the North Ossetian republican government to provide opportunities for the Syrian Ossetians to relocate to the ethnic republic (https://www.alaniatv.ru/ossetiannews/13253—ae-ae—aeae). The Ossetians are well-positioned to ask the Kremlin for assistance. That is partly because the Ossetians do not pose an immediate security threat to Moscow’s interests in the region and are even popularly considered to be Moscow’s allies in the region. It is also partly because the former North Ossetian president and the current representative of the republic in the Federation Council, Alexander Dzasokhov, served as the Soviet Union’s ambassador to Syria in the 1980s.

It will be harder now for the Kremlin to ignore calls from the North Caucasus to allow the repatriation of Circassians and other North Caucasians from Syria. It will also be difficult to put a cap on the number of Circassians who want to return to their historical land, since the vast majority of people of North Caucasian descent in Syria are ethnic Circassians. Moscow’s effort to keep the North Caucasus isolated from the world may prove to be increasingly untenable.