In late January, the Chinese government received important news from Syria. Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said “U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft conducted a precision air strike Jan. 19 against an al-Qaeda training camp in Idlib Province, Syria. More than 100 al-Qaeda fighters were killed in the strike.”
Many of those killed were Uyghurs of the Turkestan Islamic Party, who fought under the wing of Jabhat Fateh-al-Sham (JFS). According to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, during the U.S. bombing of an al-Qaeda training camp in Syria a Uyghur jihadist known as Abu Omar al-Turkistani was killed. Al-Turkistani was one of the four most prominent leaders of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is affiliated with al-Qaeda. Jabhat Fateh-al-Sham, on January 20, issued a statement about the airstrike in western Aleppo, claiming that JFS leaders Abu Anas al-Masri, Abu Ikrimah al-Tunsi, a Syrian al-Qaeda commander known as Abu Muatasem al-Deiri, and al-Turkistani were killed. JFS condemned the American airstrike in which over 100 fighters were reportedly killed, and declared that with this action the U.S. has shown it has chosen the Bashar al-Assad regime over the Syrian people.
Turkic-speaking Uyghurs, living in northwest China and practicing Sunni Islam, have strengthened their activity and agitation for independence since the early 90s. It was the achievement of independence of the former Central Asian countries including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan that in part inspired an awakening of national identity among Chinese Uyghurs. The territory of Central Asia and Xinjiang have common languages and culture, together they made up the historical region of “Turkestan.” Thus, the term “Turkestan” is often used in national liberation and religious movements among Uyghurs. For instance, the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Oppositional Party of Eastern Turkestan, Organization for liberation of Uyghurs of Turkestan, International Committee of Eastern Turkestan, United National Revolutionary Front of Eastern Turkestan, Movement for Young and Free Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Sport of Eastern Turkestan, Uyghurstan Liberation Front, Lop Nur Wolves, and The Islamic Party of Turkestan all reference the term. All these organizations have been officially labeled as terrorist groups and have had their activities banned in China.
Among them financially, militarily, and ideologically, the biggest and most influential organization is the Turkestan Islamic Party, which has become nucleus of Uyghur jihadists abroad. It has turned into a tough player among Islamist terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East. It has had affiliations with organizations like al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and armed Sunni groups in Syria, like Jabhat Fateh-al-Sham.
I have previously highlighted in The Diplomat that more than 2,000 Uyghur fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party are estimated to have joined with Jabhat Fateh-al-Sham in conducting military operations in northwest Syria against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to the Al Arabiya News channel, there are a few thousand Uyghur fighters in Syria and many of them arrived with their families after a long and treacherous journey from China and Central Asia.
The civil war in Syria and the increasing influence of Uyghur separatists in global jihadist movements forced Beijing to make serious modifications to its goals and tasks with regard to foreign policy in the Middle East. In March 2016, President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping established a new position — a special envoy for Syria. An experienced diplomat, former ambassador of China to Iran, Ethiopia and the African Union, Xie Xiaoyan was appointed to the new post.
Furthermore, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a special statement that said:
China’s appointment of the special envoy on Syrian issue aims at better promoting peace talks, more actively contributing China’s wisdom and proposals, and more effectively strengthening communication and coordination with all relevant parties. It is also the concrete embodiment of the increased efforts on advancing peace of the international community under the current situation, which will inject ‘positive energy’ to the political settlement of the Syrian issue.
However, the Chinese government set its newly appointed special representative a “secret” task connected with ensuring internal security. In particular, Xie was entrusted to coordinate with Russian, Iranian, and Syrian government military representatives on the destruction of the Turkestan Islamic Party fighting in Syria.
Uyghur jihadists calling for separation of Xinjiang from China and wanting to create an independent state of Eastern Turkestan are viewed as a serious internal enemy by Beijing. Four years ago Uyghur separatists committed a series of brazen attacks in central districts of the country. In October 2013, the Turkestan Islamic Party claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which caused civilian casualties.
In the Syrian conflict, China is acting based on the principal that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This brings China to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran.
On August 16, 2016, a Chinese military delegation visited Damascus and, beyond bilateral cooperation, it discussed the issue of eliminating Turkestan Islamic Party fighters. According to the Ministry of National Defense, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission, met Fahad Jassim al-Freij, Syria’s Defense Minister, in Damascus. During the meeting it was noted that China expressed worries about the terrorists’ influence on religious extremists in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Guan stated that “China consistently supports the position of Damascus on combating international terrorism and considers that Syria should protect its sovereignty and independence.”
Beijing and Damascus agreed to the continuing training of Syrian military personnel by Chinese advisors, which have been in Syria at the invitation of Bashar al-Assad since February 2015. Song Zhongping, a Beijing-based military expert who served in the Second Artillery Corps of the People’s Liberation Army (now the Rocket Force), said that there are already Chinese military advisors in Syria, focusing on personnel training in weapons, since the Syrian government forces are buyers of Chinese weapons, including sniper rifles, rocket launchers and machine guns.
Reportedly, during his visit Guan met with general-lieutenant Sergei Chvarkov, the head of Russian Centre for reconciliation of conflicting parties in Syria. By doing so, Beijing is sending a clear signal that Chinese advisors will be engaged in Syria not only with personnel training, but also will actively cooperate with Moscow and Damascus on destroying the Turkestan Islamic Party.
The emergence of Turkestan Islamic Party fighters in Syria has pushed the Chinese government to ally with the regime of Bashar al-Assad as well as with his international patrons Russia and Iran. In return, it seems, Damascus has supported China’s position regarding sovereignty over its territory and maritime interests in the South China Sea.
Zhao Weiming, a professor of Middle East Studies at Shanghai International Studies University, said that since the United States has been interfering militarily in China’s backyard in the South China Sea, Beijing’s involvement in Syria could be pushback from the Chinese military into an area, the Middle East, that is usually considered within the U.S. sphere of military influence. However, despite serious contradictions between Beijing and Washington in trade and economic concerns, the firmness of new U.S. President Donald Trump’s position on eliminating Islamic radicalism can become common ground. China might support U.S. antiterrorist operations if directed against fighters of the Turkestan Islamic Party. But in other issues, Beijing will continue to play its own game.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.