Concerns grow over rise in Chinese jihadis in Syria
Analysts say battle-hardened Islamists may pose national security threat, especially in Xinjiang
The rise of Chinese jihadis in Syria poses an increasing security threat to China and is forcing Beijing to rethink its Middle East strategy, analysts say.
Unlike other major powers such as the United States or Russia, China has long limited its participation in the region’s affairs.
But Beijing has been concerned with the national security threat posed by Islamist fighters in Syria who hailed from Xinjiang and returned to China, said Li Wei, a counter-terrorism expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – which monitors casualties on all sides in the conflict – estimated there were about 5,000 Chinese fighters in Syria, most of whom were fighting with the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) in northern Syria.
Li gave a much smaller figure, saying there were about 300 Chinese fighters in Syria.
Yin Gang, a Middle East expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that while exact figures remained unclear, the number of Chinese fighters in Syria was likely to have multiplied from the few hundred of two years ago.
“While they are mostly Uygurs, not all 5,000 of them are with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement,” said Yin, using another name for the TIP, which considers Xinjiang to be East Turkestan.
Like most jihadist groups in Syria, their aim is to replace the secular government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad with strict Islamic rule.
In late 2016, TIP fighters were part of a force that briefly broke a government siege of the then rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo.
Of the Chinese jihadis who have come to Syria since its civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies, some have joined the al-Qaeda branch in the country, while others paid allegiance to the Islamic State group, and a smaller number joined factions such as the ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham.
Chinese fighters’ growing role in Syria has resulted in increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies.
Abdul-Hakim Ramadan, a doctor in Idlib province, said unlike other fighters coming to Syria, the Chinese had not assimilated into local communities, and language had been a major barrier.
Many do not speak Arabic and their role in Syria is little known to the outside world, but the Chinese fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party in Syria are organised, battled hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s northern regions.
Yin said understanding these characteristics could help the Chinese authorities track and locate the Chinese fighters, as they tended to stay in groups separate from other fighters.
Their participation in the war, which has left nearly 400,000 people dead, comes at a time when the Chinese government is one of Assad’s strongest international backers. Along with Russia, China has used its veto power at the UN Security Council on several occasions to prevent the imposition of international sanctions against its Arab ally.
Beijing has blamed violence back at home and against Chinese targets around the world on Islamic militants with foreign connections seeking an independent state in Xinjiang. The government says some of them are fleeing the country to join the jihad, although critics say some Uygurs are discriminated against and economically marginalised in their homeland and are merely seeking to escape repressive rule by the majority Han Chinese.
Abu Dardaa al-Shami, a member of the now-defunct extremist Jund al-Aqsa group, said the Turkestan Islamic Party were known for their prowess in infiltrating targets and unleashing mayhem by fighting to the death before a major ground offensive began.
“They are the lions of ground offensives,” said al-Shami, who fought on several occasions alongside Chinese fighters in northern Syria.
Xie Xiaoyuan, China’s envoy to Syria, told reporters in November that the two countries have had normal military exchanges focused on humanitarian issues, although Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected the possibility of sending troops or weapons.
In the last year, however, Chinese and Syrian officials have begun holding regular, once-a-month high-level meetings to share intelligence on militant movements in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“These people not only fight alongside international terrorist forces in Syria, but also they will possibly return to China posing a threat to China’s national security,” said Li Wei, a terrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
Syrian opposition activists and pro-government media outlets say dozens of Turkistan Islamic Party fighters have carried out suicide attacks against government forces and their allies and for the past two years have led battles mostly in the north of the country.
The suicide attackers include one known as Shahid Allah al-Turkistani. He was shown in a video released by the militants taken from a drone of an attack in which he blew himself up in the vehicle he was driving near Aleppo late last year, allegedly killing dozens of pro-government gunmen.
Members of the group spearheaded an attack on the northwestern province of Idlib two years ago and captured the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour on the edge of Assad’s stronghold of Latakia region. They reportedly damaged a church in the town and raised their black flag on top of it.
The role of the Chinese jihadis in Syria was a topic that Assad spoke about last month in an interview with Chinese Phoenix TV, saying “they know your country more than the others, so they can do more harm in your country than others”.
Unlike other rebel groups, the Turkistan Islamic Party is a very secretive organisation and they live among themselves, according to activists in northern Syria. They are active in parts of Idlib and in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, as well as the Kurdish Mountains in the western province of Latakia.
Abdul-Hakim Ramadan, a doctor who was active in Idlib province, said one of his teams was trying to enter a northwestern village to vaccinate children when Chinese militant fighters prevented them from entering, saying only Chinese can go into the area.
Ramadan said unlike other fighters who have come to Syria, the Chinese have not merged into local communities and the language has been a major barrier.