Chinese jihadists’ rise in Syria stirs concerns at home
Beirut- Many do not speak Arabic and their role in Syria is little known to the outside world but the Chinese fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria are organised, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s northern regions.
Thousands of Chinese jihadists have travelled to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies. Some have joined al-Qaeda’s branch previously known as al-Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) and a smaller number joined factions such as the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.
Most of the Chinese jihadists are with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in Syria, whose vast majority are Chinese Muslims, particularly those from the Turkic-speaking Uighur majority native to Xinjiang in north-western China. Their growing role in Syria has led to increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies that fear those jihadists could one day return to China and cause trouble.
TIP is also known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that considers China’s Xinjiang to be East Turkistan.
Like most jihadist groups in Syria, their aim is to remove Assad’s secular government from power and replace it with strict Islamic rule. Their participation in the war, which has left nearly 400,000 people dead, counters the Chinese government, which 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 sanctions against its Arab ally.
Beijing has blamed violence at home and against Chinese targets around the world on Islamic militants with foreign connections seeking an independent state in Xinjiang. The government said some of them are fleeing the country to join the jihad, although critics say the Uighurs 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 defunct extremist Jund al- Aqsa group, said TIP has the best Inghemasiyoun — Arabic for “those who immerse themselves.” The Inghemasiyoun have been used by extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda’s affiliate known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Their role is to infiltrate their targets, unleash mayhem and fight to the death before a major ground offensive begins.
“They are the lions of ground offensives,” said Shami, who said he fought on several occasions alongside TIP fighters in northern Syria.
Xie Xiaoyuan, China’s envoy to Syria, in November said 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 instituted once-a-month, high-level meetings to share intelligence on militant movements in Syria, a person familiar with the matter said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to reveal military information.
“These people not only fight alongside international terrorist forces in Syria but also they will possibly return to China posing threat to China’s national security,” said Li Wei, terrorism expert at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) and director of the CICIR Institute of Security and Arms Control Studies.
Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain, said there were about 5,000 Chinese fighters in Syria, most of them with TIP in northern Syria who, along with their families, make about 20,000. Li said Abdurrahman’s numbers are too high. He said there are about 300 Chinese fighters in Syria who brought with them about 700 family members.
“As the control of the passage along the borders between Turkey and Syria is being tightened, it is becoming more difficult for them to smuggle into Syria,” Li said.
Syrian opposition activists and pro-government media outlets say dozens of TIP fighters have carried out suicide attacks against government forces and their allies and have led battles, mostly in northern Syria.
The suicide attackers include one known as Shahid Allah al-Turkistani. He was shown in a video released by TIP taken from a drone of an attack in which he set off explosives in a vehicle he was driving near Aleppo late last year, allegedly killing dozens of pro-government gunmen.
In 2015, members of the group spearheaded an attack on the north-western province of Idlib 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.
In late 2016, TIP was a main force to break a government siege on the rebel-held eastern parts of the northern city of Aleppo.
The role of the Chinese jihadis in Syria was a topic that Assad spoke about in March 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, TIP is very secretive and its members live among themselves, activists in northern Syria said. They are active in parts of Idlib and in 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 north-western village to vaccinate children when TIP fighters prevented them from entering, saying only Chinese could go into the area.
Ramadan said, unlike other fighters who have come to Syria, the Chinese have not merged into local communities and language has been a major barrier.