Future of Syria's Circassians Holds Implications for Russia

By Matthew Hedges & Theodore Karasik

Circassians are historically a people from three republics (Kabardino Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia and Adygheya) in modern day Russia and they are made up of twelve tribes; Abadzah, Besleney, Bzhedug, Yegeruqay, Zhaney, Karbady, Mamheg, Natuhay, Temirgoy, Ubyh, Shapsug, Hatuqwai. Following the Russian-Circassian war in the 18th and 19th Century, the majority of Circassians were either killed or driven from their homeland. Currently, a sizeable number of Circassians live in the Middle East with the majority living in Turkey however sizable communities are found in Syria, Jordan and Israel.

The role of Circassians in Syria is of considerable strategic importance because of the growing recognition of this ethnic group in Russian foreign relations towards Syria. Circassians in Syria, as in other Middle Eastern nations, willingly enlist in the security apparatus of their present home country and as a result are often associated with the regime in power. By the end of the 20th century the Circassians had accounted for 35 ranking generals and one Minister of Internal Affairs (Major General Bassem Abdel Majeed). For over a year there has been serious civil unrest, recently bordering on civil war, with all sectors of life threatened by the conflict. Conflict has centered on the historical trouble spot of Homs with the conflict spreading to a number of other cities. The Circassians in Syria number around 100,000 and primarily reside in Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.

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Even though Circassians are Sunni Muslims, because of their affiliation to the Syrian regime due to their role within the security apparatus, they are viewed with suspicion from all ways of life (Syrian Counter intelligence also viewing them with suspicion because they are Sunni Muslims like the majority of the opposition). As a multiplying effect the Circassians are a non-Arab ethnicity present in a secular Arab country and are further viewed with suspicion. As a result of heightened conflict between pro-Assad forces and the opposition movement the Circassians are wary of opposition forces taking power and are looking at options to leave Syria. The Circassians in Syria have hesitated to en-mass declare the desire to be repatriated to their historical homeland, or to other countries that have offered assistance.

For Russia, to repatriate the Syrian Circassian community would firstly admit that the Syrian state is disintegrating and would go against the Kremlin's present rhetoric in regards to Syria. Secondly the ethnic demographic would greatly shift in the Caucasus with large numbers of Circassians returning to their homeland. Thirdly repatriating the Circassians would greatly alter and disrupt relations between the different Northern Caucasian republics and might ignite national pride and rivalry between them and current ethnic residents, specifically Karachai-Balkars. Fourth, as a political issue there is growing anti-Russian sentiment within the Circassian community because of the Winter Olympic Games that are being held in, what is termed, 'the Circassian city of Sochi,' with the main stadium residing over the graves of those slain by the Russians in the Russian-Circassian war. Russian-Circassian relations are not the strongest and will inevitably dampen, possibly, with the 2014 Russian Winter Olympics soon approaching. These issues are a very delicate matter and would greatly influence relations one way or another.

The exploitation of this subject for foreign powers, namely Georgia, Turkey and the U.S. is of huge interest from the Russian point of view. Georgia under President Saakashvili, is vehemently opposed to Russian hegemony in the Caucuses and is a strong ally of the United States. A number of Abhazians (an ethnic group with close connections to the Circassians and claimed to be part of Georgia) were also involved in the Russian-Circassian war of the 18th and 19th centuries and President Saakashvili utilizes this point to justify Georgian assistance for the Circassians. On May 20, 2011 Georgia became the first nation to recognize the genocide of ethnic Circassians in the Russian-Circassian wars. Furthermore, Georgia recognizes Circassians as refugees. This Georgian decision was a political jab at Russia for recognizing the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Russian territory. In a speech at the UN General Assembly in 2010, Georgian President Saakashvili claimed that there will be a 'United Caucusus' with Ibragim Yaganov, Chairman of the public movement Khase of Kabardino-Balkaria and a prominent Circassian fighter for the Abkhazian's against the Georgians claimed that Georgia would become the 'Circassian window of Europe'. This affinity that the Georgians are hoping to show with their Caucasian brothers highlights the emotional link of brotherhood and solidarity against Russian aggression. Circassians however traditionally don't align themselves with Georgia, but in light of recent warming relations between Georgia and the republics of the North Caucuses, an affinity is arising. One key example of these warming relations is the visa free travel of residents from the North Caucuses and Russia to Georgia.

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Matthew Hedges is an Analyst for INEGMA. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research & Consultancy at INEGMA. Originally published by the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis, reprinted with permission.

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