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M. Jastrzębski: Of the Lion and the Dragon – a Review of the Syrian-Chinese Interaction

What is on the outside?

It is October  2017, the just reelected General Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping enjoys his moment of triumph as his secretary conveniently places a printed out e-mail on his desk. Perhaps the corner of the General Secretary’s lips twitches a little as he eyes the sender’s details. It is a congratulation letter from the President of war-torn Syrian Arab Republic Bashar Al-Asad. The President expresses his joy at the news of Xi Jinping’s reelection and wishes his counterpart success and fulfillment hoping for the flourishing and growth of the Chinese people and that the current relations between both countries will solidify, for there is “profit in it for the two sympathetic nations”. [1]

On the 25th of October 2017 Arab press would publish longer and shorter commentaries on the warm-toned message. Unsurprisingly, barely any publicist did link this heartily letter to a preceding one that was sent by Xi Jinping on the occasion of ‚Aid u-l-Galaa’ Anniversary (Arabic: عيد الجلاء )[2] – the Evacuation Day that saw the last French troops leaving the Syrian territory, and the resulting acquisition of full independence by the country on the 17th of April 1946. Diplomatic correspondence acknowledging such national festivities is a part and parcel of maintaining friendly relations between international state actors. However, in case of Syria the gist of the matter exceeds the limits of diplomatic lip service. From here on the topic gets geopolitical.

Some signs of a growing Chinese interest in the Syrian Civil War could have been noticed in the first quarter of 2016 when a team of Chinese military experts arrived in Damascus’ military airport while the Chinese Embassy’s security staff was being expanded.[3] On the turn of November and December 2017 the Syrian port-town Tartous witnessed a disembarking of the Chinese Lanzhou Military Region Special Forces Unit known as the “Night Tigers” specialized in counter-terrorist operations, rapid reaction combat and intelligence gathering. The Night Tigers were back-then accompanied by the Shenyang Military Region Special Forces Unit referred to as the „Syberian Tigers” famous for its extremely rigorous training and air-land-water battle capabilities.[4] These boys were sent to aid the Syrian government in combating terrorism – a move which followed the visit of the People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Syria. However, al-Yaum as-Sabi’ remarks, and that corroborates the information brought by Al-Arabiya English, Beijing has been sending its counselors and trainers to Syria ever since the middle of 2016. The military support is bolstered with the Chinese declaration of its readiness to move heaven and earth for the swiftest assuagement of the Syrian Crisis.[5]

In other words, for the Chinese, Asad should stay. Must he stay? That certainly is debatable, however, when cooperation is concerned, having a reliable autocrat as a reasonable ally rather than a government torn asunder by partisan squabbles leaves little place for complaints. Especially if one of those parties constituted of Xinjiang Muslim Uighurs.

Flag of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria. Source: wikimedia.org

The Elusive TIP

As long as we glance at the Chinese-Syrian relations from a state standpoint, all looks sweet, but still, there is a darker side to it all. According to Al-Hurra, which bases its information on the report of the Associated Press Agency, since 2011 many Chinese “volunteers”, if not straight-out jihadists, have joined the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) to wage havoc in Syria.[6]

Just a short revision – the TIP is an Islamic extremist organization founded by Uighur jihadists in Western China and they are bent on establishing their very own state that would be called, unimaginatively, “Eastern Turkestan”. After Dokka Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate and the now crumbling to pieces Caliphate of Al-Baghdadi this does not seem trailblazing at all, yet nonetheless, betokens a menacing danger to the Chinese Muslim Uighur-dominated province of Xinjiang.       Initiated in 1989 by Ziyauddin Yusuf with its original name of East Turkistan Islamic Party (Tur.: Doğu Türkistan İslam Partisi),[7] later rearranged by Hasan Mahsum and Abudukadir Yapuquan in 1997,[8] the organisation has its own branch by the name of Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria embroiled in the Syrian Civil War.[9] [10] Their headquarters are located in Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib Governorate, Syria[11], whereas their area of operations includes Idlib Governorate, Latakia Governorate, Aleppo Governorate and possibly all of Syria.

The TIP is not a direct affiliate of Al-Qaed, yet it is considered an ally to both Hay’at Tahriir Ash-Sham and Jabhat An-Nusra both of which are part of Al-Qaeda.[12] In addition, key Al-Qaeda and co. figures such as the late Khalid Al-Husaynan and late Abu Yahya Al-Libi issued statements in support of the TIP, while Jabhat An-Nusra’s Saudi preacher bestowed a „blessing” on the TIP jihadists. Following a precision strike carried out on January 19th 2017 in which more than 100 Zawahiri’s men were killed, testimonies of Pentagon Spokesman Captain Jeff Davis have added another proof to the assumption of the TIP’s activity in Syria under Al-Qaeda.[13] The numbers of Uighur TIP belligerents vary. Dr Uran Botobekov estimated the strength of the TIP in his article for the Diplomat in August 2016 to amount to around 2000 men, however other sources show that the actual number might be higher due to the phenomenon of what seems to be an exodus of Xinjiang Uighurs to Syria.[14] So far they have played a crucial role in aiding Jabhat An-Nusra (now HTS) in taking over the Idlib province.[15]

The reason for TIP’s presence in Syria is that of garnering experience, support and respect of their more experienced peers. Hoping to prove their worth, TIP intends to use the knowledge acquired in the Middle East on their home ground in Xinjiang. Let us remind that within the period of 2011-2018 the TIP has acknowledged the following China-directed attacks as their own contrivances:

  • A truck hit-and-run on pedestrians and mass stabbing attack in Kashgar on Ramadan Eve in 2011;
  • A low-sophistication suicide car-bombing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in October 2013;
  • A mass stabbing at the Kunming Train Station in March 2014;
  • An apparent double-suicide bombing (or suitcase bombing) at Urumqi Train Station in April 2014;
  • Car-bombings and explosions at an Urumqi market in May 2014;
  • The Bishkek Chinese Embassy bombing on 30th August 2016;[16]

One can deduce that the experience gathered in Syria could have contributed to the execution of at least four of the above-mentioned attacks: the suicide car-bombing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the double-suicide bombing at Urumqi Train Station, the Urumuqi market incident and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek. This inference is based on the timeline and the type of terrorist operations, namely car-bombing, use of explosives and suicide bombing – all of which could have been practised and perfected within the war conditions of the Syrian conflict.

However, the organisational aptitude of the TIP is questioned by some researchers. For instance, Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation points out that the most of up to January 25th 2016 TIP attacks in China were devised by individual, “loosely inter-connected cells across the country” with little supervision from the command central. Furthermore, the said cells appear to have established connections with Turkey-based Islamist organizations that provide their members with fake passports and facilitations in terms of migration not just from “China through South-east Asia to Turkey” but also “to the TIP or other settlements under rebel control in North-western Syria”.[17]

Chinese jihadists in Syria. Source: http://nwasianweekly.com

A Ray of Light in the Dark

These nuggets of information throw some light on the broader picture of the Syrian-Turkish-Chinese dynamics in Syria. First of all, Beijing wants to mitigate the semi-dormant, semi-awake Uighur unrest in its Eastern province by: a) keeping the Muslim Uighur exodus to Syria going; b) making sure that the return of the already departed Muslim Uighurs to Xinjiang is unprofitable for them and hazardous; c) sealing up the irreversibility of the Uighur migration to Syria and doing away with the TIP members/supporters on the Syrian territory by sending therein the aforementioned counter-terrorist Lanzhou Military Region Special Forces Unit “Night Tigers” and the Shenyang Military Region Special Forces Unit „Syberian Tigers” .The combat that the units are bound to engage in will have them trialed by fire, consequently providing them with experience that can be used to counteract, prevent and preempt any TIP operations either in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China. There are political advantages of China’s active yet clandestine participation in the Syrian conflict and that is keeping the relations with Assad warm. This war, despite lasting for about 7 years already, will not drag on into eternity and the time of renewal and reconstruction will come. Even if the territorial borders of Syria won’t remain as we knew them, and I am quite sure of that, Assad will need Chinese capital and Chinese constructors. Beijing, on its part, will be very eager to invest.

Regarding Turkey, the support for the Uighur Muslim, TIP or not, will continue as it stands in line with the revisited idea of pan-Turkic Islamism displayed on Erdoğan’s banners. As long as the Uighurs will work in favor of the Turkish interests in (Northen) Syria, they will keep benefiting from the safe havens either within Turkey or Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham controlled territories. Above that, one should not be oblivious of families that have been migrating with the Uighur warriors to Syria – once the situation in Syria de-escalates, these people will want to stay and settle, rooted to the land they fought, if not „for”, then „on”. Blood is the sincerest sentimentalizing factor. And with these new settlers, new electorate will emerge – one loyal to whoever gave them a new homeland.

As for Asad, he must be disinclined to have an influx of Sunni Uighur Muslims onto his territory. That is so firstly because he lacks access to levels of genuine understanding and has little to offer. Secondly, being an Alawite, hence a Shia Muslim, any talks with a Sunni partner, and probably not as well-educated as the President/dictator himself, would be truly problematic. Thirdly, Syrians and especially Asad’s regime have rarely had Turks and Turkey in their good books and that portends plausible conflicts with any groups sympathetic towards Turkey – the so called fifth column. Last but not least, newcomers require additional expenditures, at least in the beginning, and Asad would like to invest his funds very sparingly in the given conditions, I believe.

One is certain – China has an interest in keeping Al-Asad in Syria. Professor Steve Tsang, Associate fellow at Chatham House’s Associate Program has told Al Arabiya English that “The Chinese government will support the Russians as they don’t want to see Assad fall.”[18]

Yet the most riveting question remains – to what extent Asad remains the master of his own fate? Will the Lion look fearlessly into the Dragon’s eyes as and cooperate as an equal with an equal? Or will the sage reptilian gaze devour him?

 

Maciej Maria Jastrzębski

 

[1]    رسالة من الرئيس الأسد الى نظيره الصيني , www.alalam.ir, http://www.alalam.ir/news/3107241/%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A6%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%8A [accessed: 03.04.2018]

[2]     ماذا قال الرئيس الصيني في رسالته الى بشار الاسد.., www.alalam.irhttp://www.alalam.ir/news/1956218/%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%B0%D8%A7-%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A6%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AA%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A8%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AF– [accessed: 03.04.2018]

[3]     Ali, M. H.; (02.03.2016) China’s proxy war in Syria: Revealing the role of Uighur fighters, Al-Arabiya English,  https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html , [Accessed: 29.04.2018]

[4]     The PLA’s special forces: secrets revealed, http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20141219000062&cid=1101 [accessed: 03.04.2018]

[5]    الصين تساند „الأسد”.. بكين ترسل وحدتين من أقوى القوات بالعالم إلى الأراضى السورية.. „نمور سيبيريا” و”نمور الليل” لدعم بشار ومحاربة الإرهابيين.. „الخارجية” الصينية: نساند روسيا لتسوية الأزمة فى سوريا, Al-Youm As-Sabi’, https://www.youm7.com/story/2017/12/15/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%AD%D8%AF%D8%AA%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%82%D9%88%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85/3555925 [accessed: 03.04.2018]

[6]     ‚الجهاديون الصينيون’.. من هم؟ وما حقيقة دورهم في سورية؟ , Al-Hurra, (23.04.2017),

https://www.alhurra.com/amp/chinese-jihadis/359266.html [Accessed: 27.04.2018]

[7]     Arabinda Acharya; Rohan Gunaratna; Wang Pengxin (22.06.2010). Ethnic Identity and National Conflict in China. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 53–. ISBN 978-0-230-10787-8. ; J. Todd Reed; Diana Raschke (2010). The ETIM: China’s Islamic Militants and the Global Terrorist Threat. ABC-CLIO. pp. 48–. ISBN 978-0-313-36540-9.

[8]     China: The Evolution of ETIM, (13.05.2016), Stratfort.com, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/china-evolution-etim [Accessed: 27.04.2018].

[9]     TIP Division in Syria Releases Video Promoting Cause, Inciting for Jihad,(06.06.2014),  https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/tip-division-in-syria-releases-video-promoting-cause-inciting-for-jihad.html [Accessed: 29.04.2018]

[10]   Syrian War Daily – 26th of April 2018 (26.04.2018), Syrian War Daily, https://syrianwardaily.com/2018/04/26/syrian-war-daily-26th-of-april-2018/ [Accessed: 29.04.2018].

[11]   TIP Division in Syria Releases Video Promoting Cause, Inciting for Jihad,(06.06.2014),  https://news.siteintelgroup.com/Jihadist-News/tip-division-in-syria-releases-video-promoting-cause-inciting-for-jihad.html [Accessed: 29.04.2018]

[12]   Apparently Jabhat an-Nusra renamed itself into Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham in July 2016 and then merged with other several Salafist jihadist groups on 28 January 2017 creating what is now known as Hay’at Tharir ash-Sham.

[13]   Botobekov, U.; (27.01.2017) What’s Are China’s Stakes in Syria?, The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2017/01/whats-are-chinas-stakes-in-syria/ , [Accessed: 29.04.2018].

[14]   Ali, M. H.; (02.03.2016) China’s proxy war in Syria: Revealing the role of Uighur fighters, Al-Arabiya English,  https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html , [Accessed: 29.04.2018]

[15]   Ibid.

[16]   Botobekov, U.; (29.09.2016) Al-Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and the Bishkek Chinese Embassy Bombing., The Diplomat, https://thediplomat.com/2016/09/al-qaeda-the-turkestan-islamic-party-and-the-bishkek-chinese-embassy-bombing/ , [Accessed: 29.04.2018].

[17]   Zenn, J.; (25.01.2016) China’s Counter-Terrorism Calculus, in: Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 2, The Jamestown Foundation, https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-counter-terrorism-calculus/#.VsT4bdD6eUg [Accessed: 01.05.208].

[18]   Ali, M. H.; (02.03.2016) China’s proxy war in Syria: Revealing the role of Uighur fighters, Al-Arabiya English,  https://english.alarabiya.net/en/perspective/analysis/2016/03/02/China-s-proxy-war-in-Syria-Revealing-the-role-of-Uighur-fighters-.html , [Accessed: 29.04.2018]

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M. Jastrzębski: Of the Lion and the Dragon – a Review of the Syrian-Chinese Interaction Reviewed by on 1 maja 2018 .

What is on the outside? It is October  2017, the just reelected General Secretary of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping enjoys his moment of triumph as his secretary conveniently places a printed out e-mail on his desk. Perhaps the corner of the General Secretary’s

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