Chinese Muslims involved in Syria war
UFRA (Turkey) - Fighters from China’s Muslim Uighur minority have been joining Islamic State (ISIS) ranks in Syria for months even while Beijing’s role in the war gave moral and political support to the regime of President Bashar Assad.
China has backed Russia in vetoing several UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Syrian regime, including one to have Assad prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. It has been an outspoken supporter of the military intervention by its Russian ally against the jihadist group.
China, Russia and Iran are Syria’s closest allies.
But scores of Uighur fighters from the western Chinese state of Xinjiang have joined ISIS , whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, threatened China in 2014 over perceived oppression of Chinese Muslims.
Beijing claims members of the Uighur militant group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which it blames for the violence in China’s far western region of Xinjiang, have been training with extremists in Syria and Iraq. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking in Turkey on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit on November 16th, said cracking down on ETIM should become “an important part” of the world’s war on terror.
According to a former ISIS member who asked to be identified as Abu Hareth, Chinese fighters started arriving in Syria, via Turkey, in the summer of 2014 and settled in Tal Akhdar, west of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province, whose residents were displaced by ISIS.
“In August 2014, the first batch of 300 fighters, accompanied by their families, entered Syria from the crossing of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border. I was there by chance and saw them being shuttled to Tal Akhdar. When I asked about them, I was told they are Chinese Muslims joining ISIS,” Abu Hareth told The Arab Weekly in a Skype interview.
The Chinese fighters were isolated and no ISIS member was allowed to contact them. “We were strictly forbidden to enter Tal Akhdar. Even food supplies were handed to them at the entrance of the town,” Abu Hareth said.
“They were grouped in a special Chinese unit called Oussoud al Haydariya and were in contact with a number of Turkish fighters only because they all spoke Turkish. The unit fought in Kobani where some of its members were killed,” he added.
Chinese fighters were assigned to train “ISIS cubs”, whose age ranged between 13 and 17 years, in martial arts at the main training centre in Akayrashi, east of Raqqa city.
After the fall of Tal Abyad to Kurdish fighters, the Chinese combatants and their families were transferred to Raqqa city, where they mixed with fighters from central Asia.
“ISIS has many combatants from Asia; however it is difficult to distinguish Chinese from Uzbeks and Tajiks. They all look very similar and they speak fluent Turkish,” said Mohamad Hammoud from Raqqa. Uzbek, Uighur and Turkish all belong to the Turkic language family and share a degree of mutual intelligibility.
In addition to ISIS, Chinese fighters have joined other armed groups, though in smaller numbers, including al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and Jaysh al-Muhajireen, which is based in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia provinces.
A field activist in rural Aleppo, who asked not to be named, pointed out that the Chinese fighters, who had joined al-Nusra Front because it included Turkish members, later moved to ISIS, following Turks with whom they could communicate in Turkish.
“Some Chinese were trained with the unit of Abu Youssef al Turki, which is specialised in sniping,” the activist said. “Abu Youssef trained hundreds of al-Nusra Front snipers before he was killed in a raid by the US-led coalition in rural Aleppo in September last year.”
Chinese fighters were also active with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units fighting ISIS in Hasakah province in northern Syria. The Kurdish website Wilayati wrote about a young Chinese called Chao who had joined the Kurdish group after reading about the battle of Kobani in a Chinese newspaper.
When Russia engaged its air power a month ago to purportedly combat ISIS in Syria, China has contented itself with political backing of its ally’s military intervention.
Unconfirmed reports that circulated about China’s dispatch of warships to the Syrian port of Tartus to back up the Russians were blasted as part of “a propaganda war”. “It is true that a number of Chinese experts are based in Tartus but they are communication specialists and have no military role since Syria does not possess any Chinese weapons,” a Tartus-based source told The Arab Weekly.
China has been extending moral and political support to the Syrian regime since the onset of the crisis, almost five years ago. It hopes that its staunch backing of Russia’s purported “war on ISIS” would prevent hundreds of Chinese jihadists from returning to China and spreading radical thoughts.