Do fighters returning from Syria threaten Central Asia and China?
Throughout 2018, various security organisations, from Russia to the European Union, pointed out the threat created by foreign fighters returning from the Middle East, especially from Syria.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and India (Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia have observer status), refers to the danger posed by these returning combat veterans, as “terrorist spillover.”
The primary focus of the SCO is enhancement of regional security and combating terrorism, extremism and separatism. The organisation’s latest summit stressed mutual security concerns with special reference to Syria and Afghanistan. The SCO warned that the “terrorist spillover” would become a significant security problem in 2019.
From Beijing’s perspective, if efforts to stabilise Syria are not managed correctly, the resulting insecurity will have a negative influence on its Belt and Road Initiative and undermine China’s policies in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The situation in Xinjiang provoked international uproar concerning the treatment of ethnic Uighurs and the Chinese government’s narrative of the Xinjiang situation has come under international media scrutiny.
China is also facing the threat posed by the return of battle-hardened Uighur fighters who either joined the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or the Islamic State. There are no reliable data of the number of Uighurs who joined militant groups in Syria and the estimates range from hundreds to the thousands.
The inability to make reliable estimates is compounded by the practical difficulties in researching terrorist trends in active combat zones. This plays into the hands of countries that perhaps gain an advantage by exaggerating the number of fighters returning from war zones. The clash between reality and propaganda will become apparent early in 2019.
Reports in 2017 and early 2018 — recently disproved — suggested that Beijing was preparing to dispatch the People Liberation Army (PLA) to combat the terrorist menace in Syria. In 2019, Chinese assistance to Syria will occur but in the framework of a reconstruction process.
The deployment of the Chinese military to target TIP fighters remains a very remote possibility. Nevertheless, an increased Chinese economic footprint in Syria could attract terrorist attacks that may prove to be more sophisticated than recent assaults against Beijing’s diplomatic structures in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan.
The protracted conflict in Syria increases the probability that the country will become a source for the propagation of terrorist ideologies and the proliferation of extremist networks in Eurasia. In addition to Russia’s involvement in kinetic action, China and the other SCO members are increasingly focused on how to contain the terrorist spillover before it becomes an acute problem.
During the 2018 session of the SCO Security Council, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasised the need for cooperation and security to sustain the momentum for Eurasia’s economic growth. Chinese conflict resolution efforts in Syria, which began in 2016, will gain renewed importance in 2019. In addition to economic support, security containment measures will be added to the roster of Beijing’s activities in the country.
Joint patrols along the Mekong River by the Chinese People Armed Police, the first overseas PLA base in Djibouti and a peacekeeping mission in Africa under the aegis of the United Nations are examples of China’s expanding security footprint. In this regard, the Wakhan corridor military base in Afghanistan and the transfer of military hardware to the Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan border forces show a gradual shift in the Chinese attitude towards deployment of Chinese military forces overseas. Cooperation with Damascus could be considered Beijing’s next step towards a more proactive policy.
Chinese strategies to protect its investments in Syria will affect the SCO’s counterterrorism efforts. Previously, the only voice for a comprehensive engagement was limited to Moscow but a deeper Chinese involvement could mean a greater role for the organisation.
Nevertheless, security responsibilities are going to be shared by the SCO members to different degrees. Going forward, China must grapple with how diplomacy driven by investment, which served Beijing well in the past decade, can be sustained by other means. Reluctance to formulate a proper strategy in Syria and in the overall Middle East and North Africa region could hamper China’s response capabilities in case of a crisis. In this respect, the challenge posed by returning Uighur fighters is not going to be solely resolved by Chinese economic aid to Syria.
Beijing is aware that the Belt and Road Initiative is firmly anchored on the receiving countries’ political stability and security. The negative reverberations of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East instability towards Eurasia are going to affect China’s win-win narrative of global connectivity and sustainable development.
Beijing’s mantra of “prosperity brings stability” is not always the case with regards to political violence. In this respect, Beijing’s imminent economic involvement in the Syrian post-conflict reconstruction process is not a guarantee that all problems will be solved. Syria’s geographic position makes it strategic for Beijing’s global economic, energy and security architecture.
Since the Chinese economic presence in Damascus is intended to accelerate the global rebalancing of power, missteps could involve leaving Beijing in a perilous quagmire.