Beijing: Many don’t 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 organized, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s northern regions.
Thousands of Chinese jihadis have come to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies. Some have joined the al-Qaida’s branch in the country previously known as Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the Islamic State group and smaller number joined factions such as the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.
But the majority of Chinese jihadis are with the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, whose vast majority are Chinese Muslims, particularly those from the Turkic-speaking Uighur majority native to Xinjiang in China. Their growing role in Syria has resulted in increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies that fear those same jihadis could one day return home and cause trouble there.
The Turkistan Islamic Party is the other name for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that considers China’s Xinjiang to be East Turkistan. Like most jihadi 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, 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 the Uighurs are discriminated against and economically marginalized in their homeland and is 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 TIP has the best “Inghemasiyoun,” Arabic for “those who immerse themselves.” The Inghemasiyoun have been used by extremist groups such as IS and al-Qaida’s affiliate now known as Fatah al-Sham Front. 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 al-Shami, who fought on several occasions alongside TIP 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 o militant movements in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to reveal military secrets.
“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 and Director of the CICIR Institute of Security and Arms Control Studies.