In addition to Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, and Ossetian minorities, Syria is also home to an estimated 7,000-9,000 people whose ancestors settled there after leaving Daghestan following the Caucasus wars of the mid-19th century. Members of that Daghestani community, most of whom live in Homs or the village of Derfoul, have sought for the past two years to avoid taking sides in the ongoing fighting between opposition forces and government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad. But since government forces bombarded Derfoul in a bid to destroy a nearby military base seized by the opposition, some 200 Syrian Daghestanis have drafted an appeal to the Russian authorities for help in leaving Syria, acquiring the recognized status of refugees, and settling in Daghestan.
The independent Russian-language weekly “Chernovik” convened a press conference in Makhachkala last week to discuss the plight of the would-be resettlers and how to help them. Republic of Daghestan parliament deputy Magomed Magomedov, who chairs the parliament committee for interethnic relations, advised that they should apply at the nearest Russian embassy or consulate for inclusion in the state program for helping compatriots resident abroad to settle in the Russian Federation. Magomedov advised that any formal intercession on their behalf with the president or parliament of Daghestan should be clear and specific, and the list of people applying to settle in Daghestan should be final and definitive.
Opthalmologist Mukhammad Nur Nidal, who studied in Daghestan and now lives in Saudi Arabia, has assumed the role of spokesman and adviser to Syria’s Daghestani community. He told the press conference that most of those who want to leave Syria are doctors, teachers, or engineers — professions that are in demand in Daghestan. He said they are not asking for financial help, only for logistical and diplomatic assistance in leaving Syria.
Nidal said none of those anxious to leave Syria have taken part in the fighting, and they are prepared to undergo stringent screening to prove it. The reason the number of Daghestanis who want to leave Syria for Russia is so low, Nidal explained, is that Russian media coverage of the ongoing low-level insurgency in Daghestan has convinced them that the security situation there is as bad as in Syria, or even worse.
Although none of the participants at last week’s press conference were quoted as saying so, the chances that either the Russian federal government or the Daghestani authorities will provide the desired help are low. In an earlierinterview with “Chernovik,” Nidal cited the experience of an unnamed colleague who sought to raise the issue with Daghestan’s Ministry for Nationality Policy, Religious Affairs, and Foreign Ties. The official his colleague spoke to produced a list of 300 people who wanted to resettle in Daghestan from Kyrgyzstan and confessed he had no idea how to cope with the problem.
Nidal said he sees no evidence that Daghestan’s government is prepared to raise the plight of the Syrian Daghestanis with the Federal Migration Service, or even to secure a quota for people entitled to temporary residence in Daghestan for the duration of the fighting in Syria.
The apparent indifference of the Daghestani leadership is in stark contrast to the more proactive approach adopted by other North Caucasus republics. Republic of Adygheya head Aslanchery Tkhakushinov reacted in late 2011 to an appeal for help by a group of Syrian Circassians by interceding on their behalf with the Russian Foreign Ministry. His counterpart in North Ossetia, Taymuraz Mamsurov, and Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, have likewise solicited Moscow’s help.
Over the past 12 months, 98 families (a total of 452 people) from Syria have arrived in Adygheya, most of whom have been provided with housing there. The others have settled in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
Those refugees represent only a fraction of the combined Circassian/Chechen/Daghestani community in Syria, which numbers up to 100,000 people, of whom 55,000-60,000 are Circassians. Nidal explained that the Syrians tend to apply the ethnonym Circassian to all North Caucasus ethnic groups. A further obstacle to determining with any accuracy the relative size of the various ethnic communities is that many people of Chechen descent bear the family name Daghistani.
The quotas set by the federal government for the number of foreign citizens who may be granted temporary residence in the North Caucasus in 2013 are 450 (Adygheya), 1,000 (Kabardino-Balkaria), and 300 (Karachayevo-Cherkessia). Figures for Chechnya, North Ossetia, and Daghestan are not available.
Apart from establishing those quotas, the federal authorities have shown little willingness to help. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet responded toan appeal earlier this month by Circassian NGOs to expedite the evacuation of their co-ethnics from Syria.
Even more alarming, five Circassians, including a woman of 80, who arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport with valid Russian visas on December 18 were refused entry and put on a plane back to Jordan. No explanation was forthcoming.