Large numbers of Syria’s Circassian community are seeking a return to their traditional homeland in Russia’s North Caucasus as fighting intensifies between government forces and rebels, a Russian senator said on Monday.
"The possible coming to power of the radical Syrian opposition is viewed by the Circassian community as a direct threat to their lives,” Federation Council senator Albert Kazharov told journalists.
Analysts say the Circassian community has traditionally backed President Bashar al-Assads’s regime.
"More than 200 families are ready to pack their things today and leave immediately,” Kazharov said. "But the situation there is tough and unpredictable and many people are in no state to say what they want - but I did not meet anyone who ruled out leaving.”
Kazharov is senator for the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, where the majority of Russia’s Circassians live. He was part of an eleven-strong Russian delegation that flew into Syria for a four-day fact-finding mission on March 16.
The delegation included senators from other republics with ethnic Circassian populations and visited a number of cities, including the capital, Damascus, and Homs, which opposition activists say has suffered heavy shelling by government forces. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians, during the year-long uprising against Assad’s rule.
But, he said, for those who want to flee, the current chaotic situation in Syria makes it extremely difficult to get the necessary documents, including passports and visas. Kazharov has proposed changes to existing Russian immigration laws to help facilitate the speedy return of the Circassians. The Russian authorities have yet to approve the proposals.
Over 100 members of Syria’s Circassian community sent an appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev in December asking to be repatriated, Russia media reports said.
Circassians were exiled en masse from their North Caucasus homeland to the Ottoman Empire by Tsarist Russian forces in the 19th century, with unconfirmed numbers perishing both on the beaches of the Black Sea and in its waters themselves. Some 90 percent of Circassians are reported to live outside of their historical homeland, with large communities across the Middle East.
Georgia became the first country to recognize the "Circassian genocide” last May and has called for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi – the traditional homeland of the Circassians. Georgia and Russia have a fierce rivalry in the Caucasus region – the two former Soviet republics fought a war over the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia in 2008.
Kazharov was speaking less than 24 hours after Medvedev said UN envoy Kofi Annan's peace mission to Syria may be the last chance to avoid a "prolonged and bloody civil war". Russia has vetoed UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, but has given full backing to Annan’s mission. And in an apparent hardening of Russia’s position on Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Assad had handled initial peaceful protests "incorrectly.”