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November 19, 2012, Monday

Syrian Circassians have begun to arrive in Turkey

Metin Alhas, a resident of Reyhanlı, Hatay province, carried out his own sit-in protest on Nov. 17 in front of the Reyhanlı Municipality, opening up a poster that said, “Stop your silence -- prevent the deaths of Syrian Circassians.”

Said Alhas: “They are killing our Circassian brothers in Syria. I am carrying out this protest in the name of not remaining silent about these deaths. I have siblings, relatives and friends in Syria. All around the world, the Circassians have no one backing them, and despite the fact that they do not take sides in war, they are the ones who are in the greatest pain.” Wearing traditional Circassian clothing as he carried out his protest, Alhas’ goal was to attract attention to a problem that has been overshadowed in Syria by other events.

And so now, aside from Syrians of Sunni Arab descent, Syrian Circassians have also begun to flow into Turkey. Other than Turkey, Syrian Circassians tend to also go to Jordan, where they have many relatives. There are also Syrian Circassians who have begun to move to the Russian Federation (Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria republics), as well as to the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, the US and various EU countries. One significant dimension to the flight of the Syrian Circassians from Syria is that, as a part of their traditional character, they tend to be very connected to wherever they are residing. They do not generally flee from the countries where they are citizens; instead, they will stay, defending the state structure until the very end. And so, the growing numbers of Syrian Circassian citizens who are leaving Syria for other countries, not to mention the significant numbers of Syrian Circassian youth who are joining the flanks of the Syrian opposition forces, are new signs that the Bashar al-Assad regime is reaching its final stages.

The settlement of Circassians in Syria took place in two different stages. The first stage was after 1864, when they came straight to Syria from the Northern Caucuses. The second stage was after the 1877-1878 Ottoman-Russian war, when they came via the Balkans to Syria. When Hatay was added to the lands of the Turkish Republic in 1939, years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, some Circassians became a part of Hatay, while others remained within Syrian borders. The majority of Circassians in Syria could be found living in and around the Golan Heights, Transjordan, Hama, Homs and Aleppo. The final group of Circassians to migrate to Syria came after World War II. Today in Syria there are somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 Circassians, living mostly in Damascus, Aleppo and Humus. In short, the Circassians are a part of Syrian society.

Even though the Circassians in Syria have tried to remain neutral, they were forced in the end to take sides in the recent conflict. At the start of November, when opposition forces took shelter in the Circassian village of Marj as-Sultan, Assad’s forces bombed the village. All 2,500 people living in the village were forced to flee, with villagers heading mostly to the nearby Circassian village of Qudsiyyah, and some going to the Circassian district in Damascus called Rukn-Eddin. Rukn-Eddin is, in itself, a city district composed largely of Circassians who came from the Golan Heights during the Arab-Israeli war.

As of July 2012, more and more Circassian Syrians are taking shelter in Turkey. Most of them are heading for Reyhanlı, where they have relatives. In fact, there are around 1,000 Circassians with Turkish citizenship living in and around Reyhanlı. Families who have moved to Reyhanlı are being supported by the Reyhanlı Çerkes Derneği (Adige Hase), or the Reyhanlı Circassian Association. Under the leadership of association president Uğur Pihava, the Syrian Crisis Committee was even formed. This committee helps those who have fled Syria settle into new homes. The network of support created by the committee helps people receive electricity, water, heating and food needs.

And so the false borders of World War I are melting on the Reyhanlı-Syria axis. As for Reyhanlı, it is just grateful to be able to help its Syrian relatives.

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