Chechens of Syria… A minority integrated into its new home due to “Al-Baath Party”

Chechens dancing their traditional dance (AFP)

Chechens dancing their traditional dance (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri

“Being born and raised in Syria, I do not feel a sense of belonging to my Chechen origins, and because of tradition, I take pride in my origin whatever it was.”

The family of Lusin Izz al-Zain, a 23-years old young Syrian woman of Chechen origin from al-Qunaytirah city, southern Syria, has contributed to developing a feeling of belonging to her mother country, Chechnya; nevertheless, their integration with the surrounding Syrian society has led to the disappearance of that feeling, according to what she said to Enab Baladi.

The young women added that “other Syrian Chechens’ sense of belonging could be different from mine.”

Izz al-Zain pointed out that she and her family did not preserve their Chechen traditions and fully integrated into Syrian society through Arabic language, culture, and history.

The young women attributed their integration and loss of Chechen language to living in an area with a majority of the Syrian population.

Before arriving in Turkey, Izz al-Zain lived in the Darayya area in Rif Dimashq governorate, west of the Syrian capital, Damascus, and did not mingle with Syrian Chechens.

Izz al-Zain tried to learn the Chechen language, but it was difficult for her.

Geographical distribution

Chechens of Syria are Syrian citizens of Chechen nationalism. They are among ethnic minorities in Syria who came after leaving their home country, the Chechen Republic (Chechnya), following the Russian invasion of their country in the 18th century.

The Chechens are an independent nationality, registered in the Ottoman state’s civil records in Damascus. They are recognized as part of a page devoted to the division of Syria’s sects and nationalities during the Ottoman era, similar to other nationalities in Syria.

The Chechen Republic is located in the Caucasus Mountains region. It is bordered by Dagestan and Georgia to the south, Dagestan and Russia to the north, and North Ossetia and Ingushetia to the west.

Its citizens speak the Chechen language, the Chechen people’s national language, and the Russian language.

For hundreds of years, the Chechen people were geographically concentrated at the intersection of the Russian and Ottoman empires’ influence areas and lived under Ottoman control at the beginning of the 17th century. However, the Caucasus region was often an area of conflict between the Ottomans and Tsarist Russia in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

After several conflicts between these two forces, the Russian Empire controlled Chechnya in 1859.

During the turmoil that accompanied the Russian invasion, some Chechens fled to neighboring areas that were still under Ottoman control (Anatolia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), according to research by the anthropologist at Jordan’s Yarmouk University, Wasfi Kelani.

The research entitled “Chechens in the Middle East: Between Indigenous and Host Cultures,” the “Chechen Diaspora” in the Middle East, discussed Chechen immigrations outside their country of origin.

The research mentioned that the Ottoman Empire’s political events 50 years later had led some Chechens to relocate again.

According to Kelani, some Chechens in this region seized the opportunity to penetrate deeper into the Ottoman Empire, including parts of the countries of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, when young, nationalist-oriented Turks began to take over Anatolia during the first decade of the 20th century.

One of the reasons the Ottoman authorities encouraged Chechens to settle in these areas was to be a bulwark against the Arab Peninsula’s Bedouin tribesmen aggression.

The Russian advancement in Asia forced Chechens to emigrate in 1861 toward the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans placed them on the western edge of the Syrian desert to prevent tribal attacks, according to the researcher in the Syrian social and political history Muhannad al-Katee.

According to an article by al-Katee, the Chechens built a settlement in the city of Ras al-Ain, northwest of al-Hasakah province, on the Syrian-Turkish borders, on the site of the ancient city, which has been in ruins for centuries. The Chechens also built other villages on the ocean and named them after those killed in the Caucasus.

The Chechens cultivated land around Ras al-Ain and lived in the villages of Tal al-Rumman, Qara, and al-Safih.

Successive migrations 

According to researcher al-Katee, the Chechens are known for their courage and independence. 

Although they began farming on the Khabur River’s banks, the surrounding clan conquests did not allow them to achieve the agricultural stability they desired.

Moreover, the spread of diseases and the migration of some of them to al-Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cities have contributed to declining their numbers.

In addition, many of the Chechens have not endured the climate and Bedouin attacks; therefore, they returned to their homeland in the Caucasus, while others have migrated in other directions.

The Chechen emigrants to Syria found a new home in the Golan Heights. They settled mainly in the cities of al-Qunaytirah, Ras al-Ain, and the village of al-Safih, ten kilometers away from Ras al-Ain, al-Qamishli, al-Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor.

Children in the al-Safih village, which the Chechens built on the left bank of the Jarjab River, a tributary of the al-Khabur River Muhannad al-Katee)

Children in the al-Safih village, which the Chechens built on the left bank of the Jarjab River, a tributary of the al-Khabur River (Muhannad al-Katee)

The initial stage of their settlement was marked by a conflict with the local Arab population and the Druze community, writer Amjad Jaimoukha wrote in his book “The Chechens.”

In the absence of official figures on Chechens’ numbers in Syria, the writer estimated their number between 6,000 and 35,000 in 2008.

According to Jaimoukha, the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 resulted in Chechens’ “expulsion” from the Golan Heights and their displacement to their new areas in Damascus.

The 1967 war has also resulted in the Chechens’ migration to the United States (US), with the Tolstoy Foundation’s help, a non-profit charity organization based in Rockland County, New York.

“Al-Baath Party” forced the Chechens to integrate into Syrian society

While the Chechen minority in Jordan managed to preserve its language and culture, the Chechens of Syria and Iraq failed to do that. This was, to a large extent, due to the intolerance of the ruling “al-Baath Party” at the time in both countries, according to Jaimoukha, and the work of many of them in the oil field.

Kelani also confirmed that the Chechen community in Jordan has managed to maintain a completely separate Chechen identity. He pointed out that this was largely possible because the Chechens had developed a close relationship with the ruling Hashemite family and maintained a level of economic independence.

At the same time, the Chechens have been largely integrated into other Near and Middle Eastern societies in the surrounding Arab and Turkish cultures.

Kelani mentioned that one reason Chechens could not maintain a separate identity in Iraq and Syria is that these countries’ ruling “al-Baath Party” has confiscated their land and forced them mainly to assimilate into the larger culture.

However, researcher al-Katee, said to Enab Baladi that Chechens’ integration into Syrian society is much older than the al-Baath Party’s emergence.

Al-Katee added the Chechen society lives in the midst of Arab villages and towns. Thus, for more than a century and a half, it was natural for them to be integrated into society and acquire the identity of their surroundings, especially since modern Syria’s establishment, the Chechens bore its nationality.

Some of the Chechens rose in the hierarchy of responsibility and positions in the state and the army, and therefore the talk is about Syrians of Caucasian origin, not about Chechens or Circassians separate from their cultural and social surroundings according to al-Katee.

As for the “al-Baath Party,” the researcher added that it prevented all Syrians from getting to know each other or introducing each Syrian region’s cultures and folklore properly and fairly.

Instead, the Syrian regime deliberately and sarcastically demonstrated the Druze in the Arab Mountain (Jabal al-Druze) in its TV drama, as it did to those from the Euphrates region who were portrayed as “backward pastoralists.”

As for linguistic and ethnic minorities, the regime never made reference to them, nor did it encourage their folklore and culture manifestation, al-Katee said.

Despite the integration of minorities into Syrian society within the natural and historical context resulting in a margin of folklore and particularity that the state can cherish in case it desired to preserve a co-existing social fabric, the regime did the opposite, in order to create an explosive rift among all segments of Syrian society, according to researcher al-Katee.

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