Regime’s Self-Proclaimed Protection of Minorities Does Not Extend to Circassians Deprived of Properties

Only 500 people now live in the Circassian town of Marj Al-Sultan in East Ghouta, which had a population of 3,500 residents before 2011.

Marj Al-Sultan, Source: The Syria Report

The first known reference to the town dates back to 1878, when it was established as a horse pasture under Ottoman rule. Later, the Ottoman wali of Damascus, Midhat Pasha, granted the town to Circassian refugees fleeing the Caucasus. After the Six-Day War in June 1967, Circassians from Quneitra also fled to Marj Al-Sultan. Today, Marj Al-Sultan is part of the Al-Marj district of East Ghouta, which consists of 28 towns. The town is known for its fine architecture in the style typical of the French colonial period.

Regime forces recaptured Marj Al-Sultan in 2015, sending the town’s Circassian residents fleeing elsewhere in East Ghouta. Some of them managed to cross into Damascus through tunnels, after receiving promises from regime security forces that they would not be pursued there. However, these same security agencies quickly reneged on their promises, detaining dozens of young Circassian men and conscripting others to fight in the army. Many people from Marj Al-Sultan were forcibly displaced to northern Syria in 2018, alongside other East Ghouta residents.

In 2016-2018, when Marj Al-Sultan was empty of residents, regime officers took over the town and converted it into a base for military operations in the Al-Marj district. They also took over abandoned homes and farms to use as administrative and residential buildings, granting the buildings to pro-regime militias fighting on the East Ghouta front. The town’s school was converted into a financial office for distributing salaries to fighters.

Marj Al-Sultan notables requested that regime forces vacate the military base they had set up in the town in 2016-2018 as a condition for displaced people to return. Most of the returnees to Marj Al-Sultan are government and public sector employees loyal to the regime, according to a correspondent for The Syria Report. Security forces allowed Marj Al-Sultan residents, unlike residents of other East Ghouta towns, to restore their homes and rehabilitate their farms. Some of them even restored the properties of their relatives living outside Syria.

The Syrian regime claims to have protected minorities, including Circassians, over the course of the war. However, residents of Marj Al-Sultan have longstanding demands and grievances that were never addressed by the Syrian state, which contributed to Circassians participating in the uprising against the regime in 2011. In the 1970s, the town was subjected to land confiscations, targeting 200 out of 420 total hectares of farmland. The Ministry of Defence confiscated wide swathes of land in the town to build two heliports. To make matters worse, the confiscated land included a spring that farmers had used to irrigate their crops. And on the eastern side of the town, more farmland was confiscated to build a radar station. Other lands were also seized to build greenhouses and poultry farms. Residents were opposed to giving up their properties and refused compensation, which they considered too low (SYP 1.5 per hectare of land).

Marj Al-Sultan has also seen an unusually high rate of cancer among its residents, which some people attribute to radiation from the radar battalion. That is why in 2006 residents signed a petition demanding removal of the barracks and other military sites from the town and refusing further property confiscations. Their demands were rejected.