A number of people from Syria's Circassian community are seeking Turkey's help to return to their historical homeland in Russia's North Caucasus as the 17-month-long Syrian crisis drags on.
“Turkey should play the leading role in supporting the Circassians' return to their homeland. Turkey should show that it is a great country by creating a corridor for these people to move into the North Caucasus,” Vacit Kadıoğlu, head of the Federation of Caucasian Associations of Turkey (KAFFED), said in remarks to Today's Zaman.
The crisis in Syria has put the return of the Circassians to their homeland in the North Caucasus back on the international agenda. The Circassians were expelled from their homeland by the Russian Empire in 1864 after a decades-long war.
Ninety percent of the estimated 5-8 million Circassians are displaced, living outside of Russia. Roughly 4 million Circassians live in Turkey. Hundreds of thousands live across Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Germany and the US.
Kadıoğlu stated that the Circassians fleeing war-torn Syria are facing difficulties staying in Turkey longer than three months. “We don't want our kin to stay in refugee camps. Turkey should take measures in this regard. Turkey should either extend the stay for these people or help them return to their homeland,” said Kadıoğlu. Syrian citizens are exempted from visa requirements for stays in Turkey up to 90 days.
Despite the fact they are Sunni, Circassians do not have problems with the Syrian regime because they have maintained their loyalty and allegiance. The majority of the Circassian community supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and fears reprisals if the opposition takes over. Murat Papşu, an expert in Circassian studies, told Today's Zaman that most Circassians in Syria, as elsewhere in the world, have sided with the regime in power because of their minority status. “The events in Syria affected Circassians negatively because most of them held important government positions. The Assad regime doesn't want these people to return to their homeland,” said Papşu.
The Circassians in Syria are fairly well off economically. Many work at various levels of government, in civil service, in intelligence or in the military.
“The Circassians in Syria are part of the middle class. They have close relations with the Assad regime. They have remained uninvolved in the demonstrations [against Assad] since the beginning. Yet, there are some Circassians who have taken the side of the Syrian opposition,” Hasan Kanbolat, head of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told Today's Zaman.
Due to the conflict in Syria and the uncertainty with respect to the post-Assad era, the Circassian community is considering migrating to the North Caucasus, Turkey and the US.
Kanbolat underlined that since August, Syria's Circassians -- particularly those of the middle and upper classes -- have begun to migrate to Turkey. “They are not living in refugee camps but renting houses in the cities. Circassians are migrating from Aleppo and the surrounding provinces. I think this is the breaking point,” said Kanbolat.
“This migration shows that the crisis has intensified and has come to a point that threatens the middle class. Syria's Circassians have also started to migrate to Dubai, Jordan and Lebanon -- not just to Turkey,” said Kanbolat. He added that Russia is unwilling to accept Circassian migration to the North Caucasus.
Dozens of Circassian families facing difficulties in Syria due to the clashes have appealed to Russian authorities to permit their resettlement in the North Caucasus, but no formal decision has been made by the Russians.
“We Circassians conveyed our message to the Russian envoy in Turkey. We demanded Russia increase the number of Circassians it allows to settle in Kabardino-Balkaria,” said Kadıoğlu. The Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in the North Caucasus is where the majority of Russia's Circassians live. Kadıoğlu says: “For 2012, Russia is only allowing 450 people into Kabardino-Balkaria, and this figure has already been met. For this reason, Circassians in Syria cannot move to Kabardino-Balkaria.”
Criticizing Russia's cancellation of flights from Syria, Kadıoğlu stated that Russia should show sensitivity towards the situation of the Circassians and help them to resettle. “Russia should not demand these people obtain residence permits as there is an extraordinary situation in Syria right now,” said Kadıoğlu.
An official delegation from the Russian Federation Council visited Syria in March and May of this year for a fact-finding mission and concluded there were about 200 Circassian families who wanted to relocate to the North Caucasus as the violence in the Middle Eastern country intensified.
The exact number of Circassians in Syria is unknown. According to different estimates, there are anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000 people of Circassian descent living in Syria. According to Kadıoğlu, there are around 130,000 Circassians in Syria.
“As there is a large number of Circassians in Syria, we expect concrete steps from Moscow,” said Kadıoğlu.
According to analysts, Moscow is unlikely to allow any mass relocation of Circassians from Syria to the North Caucasus but will consider accepting Circassian refugees from Syria to soften Circassian opposition to the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in the Russian city of Sochi.
“The Caucasus is the homeland of the Circassians. They have an incontestable right to return to their homeland,” said Kadıoğlu.
The possible coming to power of the Syrian opposition is viewed by the Circassian community as a direct threat to their lives due to their support for Assad.
“History repeats itself. Circassians always side with those in power. There have always been pro-government wherever they live in the world. Circassians will try to compromise with the new government in the post-Assad era or will be forced to migrate due to their closeness to the regime,” said Papşu.