Muhammed Said Tsay said, “We are neutral. [We are] neither with the regime, nor the opposition. Please go away and don't drag our village into your war.”
He was the “thamate” — the respected communal leader — of the Circassians. Neither Syrian regime forces nor the Free Syrian Army listened to his voice. What they feared, happened. The Cirassians were caught between the fire of the two sides. The opposition seized the Circassian village of Bir Ajam located in the United Nations-controlled buffer zone, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
According to rumors, both the UN and Israel condoned the passage of the FSA through the Golan. The Syrian army followed it into the buffer zone with tanks to recapture the village. It was then that clashes with Israel started. The Circassians used the bunkers they had built up in case of a war with Israel for an internal Syrian war.
The regime, which does not abstain from demolishing locations where the opposition is located, as it did in Homs and Aleppo, was not reluctant to shell the Circassian villages either. Mortar strikes destroyed from eight to 10 villages. Israel also retaliated when five Syrian tanks passed through Golan. According to the statements of Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, Syria had entered into the buffer zone with UN consent.
Eight Circassians were killed in the clashes that continued for three days. Muhammed Said was among the victims. Ironically, his call on both sides to stay away from his village was respected even after his death. The FSA decided to pull out and the regime decided not to enter. Circassians were left with their losses. The villagers escaped to more secure areas around Damascus after they buried their dead.
A similar tragedy started in the Circassians village of Med Sultan, 15 kilometers from Damascus. According to what I have heard from a local, 10 to 15 houses were destroyed in the clashes. The death toll is unknown. These two villages were considered as a safe havens for the Circassians fleeing from Damascus and Aleppo.
Although they remained neutral, 35 Circassians have been killed since March 2011. The estimated Circassian population is Syria is around 100,000. This does not mean that there are no Circassians involved in the FSA. A Circassian from Bumbuj, who died after he was brought to Turkey wounded, was fighting for the FSA in Ras al-Ain.
Due to the clashes, the Circassians want to go to the Caucasus, which is their homeland. So far, 250 Circassians have taken refuge in Turkey, but another 5,000 want to come. They don’t stay in the camps but instead stay with Circassian families. Those who obtain temporary residency permit from Turkey can get a visa from Russia more easily. It is not possible to talk about a massive migration flow to Circassia yet. Only 1,200 people in total have gone back.
The main problem is that Russia is stingy with residence permits and citizenship. Russia’s migrant quota for the Caucasian republics is around 3,000. The Circassians have to go through the same procedures as other foreigners when they want to go back to their homeland. A visa costs $500, but many are looking into ways to return to Circassia.
Though the destination is their original homeland from where they were forced to migrate, this journey is a deportation in and of itself. That's why many of them want to wait in a safe location and observe the process.
For Circassians, Syria is their diaspora, and taking sides is no different from playing with fire. It is not possible to say they are being directly targeted at this time.
Between 1860 and 1920, the Circassians were responsible for maintaining order on behalf of the Ottomans. Their 13 villages were located as a buffer zone against the Druze and Bedouin villages in the Golan. They were supposed to keep an eye on Armenians in Zeitun and Kurds, as well as Bedouins, in Ras al-Ain. They also clashed with the locals because of land disputes.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they were left with the Arabs. They attempted to earn their trust by joining the fight against the French. In 1948, they improved their precarious situation by fighting against Israel.
Their connection with the [Syrian] regime is limited, given that their existence in the security apparatus of the state was gradually minimized over the last three decades. However, the Circassians I interviewed are saying that they are afraid that the minorities would be endangered by whoever takes power in Syria. That's why returning to Circassia is their backup plan.