Mohanad Hage Ali
A few months ago, in a remote town in Idlib province, Northern Syria, an unusual foreign militant presence alarmed Syrian locals. The Islamist fighters were from the Moslem Uyghur ethnicity from the Xinjiang province in Western China.
For a population which has grown used to the multinational nature of the Islamic militancy, two aspects of these new fighters struck them: their large numbers and strictly ethnic organisation. A year ago, they were barely hundreds of Uyghur fighters, belonging to the Jabhat Al-Nusra-allied Turkistan Islamic Party. Today, according to several sources in the province, there are a few thousand Uyghur fighters, and many of them arrived with their families after a long and treacherous journey from China and central Asia. The Uyghur are seen in large numbers in disparate regions of Idlib, including the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghur, Ariha, and the highlands of Jabal al-Zawiya, and they have settled with their families in deserted Allawite towns in Jisr al-Shoghur, a local journalist told Alarabiya English. Videos have emerged since last October of their fighting in al-Ghab plains in Hama’s Western countryside, and in Jib Al-Ahmar in the Latakia Province’s; the propaganda material showcases a tank and U.S. made anti-armour Tow missiles.
The Uyghur militants have moved into Syria following a Chinese-backed Pakistani campaign against their bases on the borders with Afghanistan; the Pakistani military claimed they had assassinated the group’s leader, abdul Haq, in 2010. The Pakistani Defence minister went further during a visit to China last year, to declare the the al-Qaeda linked group members have either been killed, or have left somehow.
The Uyghur increasing presence is behind the string of reports about possible Chinese intervention alongside the Russian and Syrian regimes. According to observers and a regime source, the possibility of a Chinese intervention has been increasing, due to the Uyghur threat and China’s increased readiness to intervene abroad. In last December, the Chinese parliament passed a controversial counter terrorism law, which allows the red army to venture abroad. China started building its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, Africa, and conducted in January elite forces trainings for “desert operations” in “unfamiliar territory”. “There are weapons and technical supplies”, a regime source said, and “the Chinese Embassy’s security delegation has been expanded, suggesting preparations for a wider role, and a Chinese team of experts had arrived in Damascus’s military airport”. The major question, the source continues, is whether the Chinese military would play a crucial role in the fight to regain Idlib. However, a Chinese ground intervention remains highly unlikely, according to Professor Steve Tsang, Associate fellow at Chatham House’s Associate Programme. Tsang told Alarabiya English that he believes the Chinese government lacks both “the military capability and political will” to sustain such an engagement. “The Chinese government will support the Russians as they don’t want to see Assad fall”.
A Syrian militant source in close contact with Uyghur fighters believes they are in Syria to stay. The Uyghur fighters speak of a treacherous journey from their home province and the Pakistan-Afghan borders to Syria, according to this source who cites conversations with the militants. “Their journey was very costly, an Uyghur fighter told me he sold his house to afford the trip here with his family members. How could he think of returning?”. And unlike other groups and foreign fighters, “they don’t hide their faces, although this carries a huge risk back home. They don’t plan to return”, says the militant. The Uyghur families have settled in abandoned towns, previously inhabited by minorities, especially Allawites who fled in fear of persecution, according to two journalists from Idlib. To help in this process, the Turkistan Islamic Party, previously known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), printed an Arabic language magazine, Turkistan al-Islamiya, introducing the local population and other militant groups to their plight under China’s Communist rule, especially the tensions with the Han settlers, whose immigration has been allegedly encouraged by the government to turn the Uyghur into a minority. “We have been largely unaware of their plight, and their magazine has helped breed some sympathy for their cause”, the Syrian militant said. However, he continues, “they remain largely poor in resources, usually aiming for free rides in transportation”. Since they are latecomers, the Uyghur fighters have missed on the great spoils of heavy weaponry from the regime forces.
This left the Uyghur militants totally reliant on Nusra. In fact, their relatively large number enforced the organisation’s previously dwindling ranks, as it had suffered in its fight against ISIS. The Uyghur played a crucial role in Nusra’s recent gains in the Idlib province. Their military achievements and their abstinence from interfering in civilian issues, such as levying taxes or enforcing Sharia law, rendered them popular among the population, according to Idlib sources.
Their alliance with Nusra are a continuation of long ties with al-Qaeda, and their allegiance to the Taliban movement. Xinjiang borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and their relationship with the Taliban extended beyond the Afghan war in 2001 until the Summer of 2015. The Party was quick to issue an obituary to the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar. According to militant sources in contact with the TIP, their strained relations with ISIS, are partly due to the latter’s tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Allegiance to the Taliban’s leader is of primary significance”, an Islamic militant in Idlib told Alarabiya English, “they call ISIS Khawarij for refusing to pledge allegiance to Taliban’s leader”, whom they consider the true Caliph.
Their presence in Syria also come in a tense period in Turkish-Chinese relations. The ruling AKP in Turkey has been long sympathetic to the cause of the Uyghur, linguistically and ethnically related to the Turks. “The pro-government media in Turkey highlights the plight of the Uyghur, like that of the Syrian Turkmen who are being targeted by the Russian and Syrian militaries, to ratchet up Sunni-nationalist sentiments at home against a range of enemies, including China, Russia, the Assad regime, Iran and the Kurds”, says Karabekir Akkoyunlu, Assistant Professor of Modern Turkey at the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz. The Uyghur plight has been at the centre of the deteriorating Sino-Turkish relations. These tensions culminated in a Chinese travel warning in July last year after pro-Uyghur demonstrators, protesting against a fasting ban in China, mistakenly attacked Korean tourists. Protestors also attacked a Chinese restaurant; however, it turned out to be Turkish owned, and staffed by an Uyghur cook. China had accused Turkey of transporting Uyghur refugees in Thailand to Syria, through providing them with Turkish passports. “When the Chinese look at Syria, like the Russians and increasingly the Europeans, they see Turkey’s government as part of the problem, not the solution. For Turkey, it’s yet another source of tension blown up by its involvement in the Syrian war”, according to Akkoyunlu.
The Uyghur presence has wider implications on the prospects for Syria, according to a Syrian journalist based in Aleppo. “The regional and international communities want this conflict prolonged”, he says. “This conflict is no longer about Syrians, it is the mother of many other conflicts”.
The article was originally published in Alarabiya website.