Mission Possible: Syrian Circassians – The Road Home, by Naima Neflyasheva

Naima Neflyasheva
Center for Civilizational and Regional Studies, RAS, Moscow

This blog is originally published in Kavkaz-uzel.ru

In the last twenty days the Syrian Circassians have been the focus of the experts and media specializing in the Caucasus.

To date, four groups of Syrian Circassians totalling three hundred people have appealed to the President Dmitry Medvedev and the heads of the republics in which Circassians are the titular nation – Aslan Tkhakushinov of Adygea, Arsen Kanokov of Kabardino-Balkaria and Rashid Temrezov of Karachai-Cherkessia- to help them return to their historic homeland at a time when Syria is actually on the verge of a civil war.

Caucasian Knot reports that, “since the beginning of anti-government protests in March 2011, Syrian security forces have killed more than four thousand people and arbitrarily arrested tens of thousands, many of whom have been tortured.  Committed as part of the massive and systematic repression of the civilian population, these incidences are widely documented by Human Rights Watch, based on the evidence of hundreds of victims and witnesses. They qualify as crimes against humanity”. According to the UN statistics, the number of victims in the clashes in Syria has exceeded three and a half thousands. However, the official figures from Damascus states more than a thousand deaths on either side, of which 1,100 are law enforcement officers.

A demonstration in the village Takhtamukai in Adygea in support of the Syrian Circassians. Children also participated.  Photo from  http://www.elot.ru

I would like to look at the nature of reports appeared in the Russian media on the position of the state authorities and the attitude of the general public towards Circassians of Syria.

Firstly, the number of reports on this topic in respectable media outlets on federal level has exceeded all expectations. Secondly, all of them are low-key rhetoric and follow the pattern of the publications unfriendly towards the “Circassians Question”. The pattern has been growing since 2010. All of a sudden many have proclaimed themselves “experts” on the Circassian Question.

Apart from a few, most of the publications in news portals were baloney and disinformation in nature (such as 5 million roubles to be allegedly allocated from the Federal Budget to each Syrian Circassian who will return to the Caucasus). They have never bothered to check the authenticity of the information they have disseminated. The media was politically correct and reserved in offering support

Perhaps this is a signal that has been sent to Moscow, the international community and Syria.

Circassian community in Syria

According to various sources, today there are between 90 and 100.000 Circassians in Syria who are mostly settled in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs.  In the mid-1860s, Circassians appeared in Syria as part of Circassians’ settlement in the Ottoman Empire as a result of their deportation during and after the Caucasian War.
The Ottoman authorities settled Circassians as a buffer in pursuit of several objectives: to provide Circassians with more productive crops so that they can start using unused land; to protect agricultural lands from Arab nomads, and to employ the services of Circassians as bearers of advanced military traditions against the neighbouring peoples whose national liberation movements gained momentum and became a problem for Istanbul.

In addition, the Circassian settlements increased the number of Muslims in the Ottoman Empire. Be reminded, though, that even by the middle of the 19th Century, the processes of Islamization of Circassians had not been completed. In the minds of the new subjects of the Porte, Islam was still not compatible the traditional code of behaviour, the Adyghe Habze, at the time the most powerful social system in within the Circassian society to regulate personal motivation and social relations.

Settlement process of Circassians in Syria has passed through several stages since the 1860s. The majority were resettled here from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire after the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878.

The Circassian (Circassian) Encyclopaedia states that “Circassian immigration into areas that are now Syria has lasted until the early 1920s.  After the end of the World War I., dozens of Circassians from Turkey sought refuge in Syria. In 1930, seven Circassian families numbering fifty people from the Soviet Union settled in the town of Kuneitra. ”

The Circassians in Syria reproduced their Circassia in their new environment in the sense that the society was administered by the Circassian national Assembly, Xase, the members of which were selected from each locality. As the head of the settlement, Thamada was elected. The Ottoman authorities arranged this order of things in that they gave Circassian elders relevant positions in the Ottoman regional system of governance.

The famous explorer, ethnographer and the author of “In the Wide World,” Eliseev wrote that Circassians in Syria “transferred onto their new settings the life styles they had in the Caucasus”. The life-support system, customs and rituals and all the institutions of self-regulation became a defence mechanism that conserved their national culture and prevented assimilation.

Such self-enforced isolation still persists somewhat to this day. One Circassian student from Syria who studied at Maikop about 5 years ago told me that the Circassian families in Damascus only invite other Circassian families for festivities. He added that Intermarriage with Arabs is rare and that such a marriage actually increases the standing of the Arab groom/bride in the eyes of his/her own family.

The traditional occupation of Circassians until recently was military service: the traditional allegiance to their government (in the period of Ottoman rule, during the French mandate and since the independence) has established a reputation for Circassians as law-abiding and loyal citizens of Syria.

Anzor Kushabiev, a researcher from Russia studying the Circassian diaspora in Syria, wrote that “by the end of the last century, there were 30-35 Circassian generals in the country’s armed forces”. But it would be an exaggeration to say that Circassians in Syria are exclusively a military caste since there are also well-known and successful doctors, farmers, scientists, writers and poets among them. “One of the first filmmakers in the history of Syrian cinema, Ismail Anzor, who shot the country’s first documentary in 1952, is a Circassian”, said the Circassian Encyclopaedia.

In the next part, I will continue with the transformation and current dynamics of the Circassian diaspora in Syria and attempt to answer whether there really is so big a cultural distance between the Syrian and Russian Circassians. I will also look into the repatriation experiences of some Syrian Circassians’ in Adygeya and try to understand whether the Circassian community is with Assad or with the opposition.

To be continued….

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