By Mohanad Hage Ali
Al Arabiya English
A few months ago, in a remote town in Idlib province, northern Syria, an unusual foreign militant presence alarmed Syrian locals. The fighters were reportedly of the Muslim Uighur minority from Xinjiang province in Western China.
For a population which has grown used to the multinational nature of the militancy, two aspects of these new fighters struck them: their large numbers and their ethnicity.
A year ago, they were barely hundreds of Uighur fighters, belonging to the Al-Nusra Front-allied Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). Today, according to several sources in the province, there are a few thousand Uighur fighters, and many of them arrived with their families after a long and treacherous journey from China and central Asia.
The Uighur are believed to have been seen in large numbers in disparate regions of Idlib, including the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghur, Ariha, and the highlands of Jabal al-Zawiya. They have settled with their families in deserted Alawite towns in Jisr al-Shoghur, a local journalist told Al Arabiya English.
Videos have emerged since last October purporting to show them fighting in al-Ghab plains in Hama’s western countryside. And in Jib Al-Ahmar in Latakia Province, the propaganda material showcases a tank and U.S. made anti-armor Tow missiles.
The Uighur militants had reportedly moved into Syria following a Chinese-backed Pakistani campaign against their bases on the borders with Afghanistan. The Pakistani military claimed they had assassinated the group’s leader, Abdul Haq, in 2010.
The Pakistani Defense minister went further during a visit to China last year, to declare the al-Qaeda linked group members have either been killed, or have left Afghanistan somehow.
The Uighur’s increasing presence is believed to be behind the string of reports about possible Chinese intervention alongside the Russian and Syrian regime forces.
Last December, the Chinese parliament passed a controversial counter terrorism law, which allows the red army to venture abroad. China started building its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, Africa, and conducted in January elite forces trainings for “desert operations” in “unfamiliar territory.”
“There are weapons and technical supplies,” a Syrian regime source said, and “the Chinese Embassy’s security delegation has been expanded, suggesting preparations for a wider role, and a Chinese team of experts had arrived in Damascus’s military airport.”
The major question, the source continues, is whether the Chinese military would play a crucial role in the fight to regain Idlib. However, a Chinese ground intervention remains highly unlikely, according to Professor Steve Tsang, Associate fellow at Chatham House’s Associate Program.
Tsang told Al Arabiya English that he believes the Chinese government lacks both “the military capability and political will” to sustain such an engagement. “The Chinese government will support the Russians as they don’t want to see Assad fall.”
The cost of travelling to Syria
A Syrian militant source in close contact with Uighur fighters believes they are in Syria to stay. The Uighur fighters speak of a treacherous journey from their home province and the Pakistan-Afghan borders to Syria, according to the source, who cites conversations with the militants. “Their journey was very costly, an Uighur fighter told me he sold his house to afford the trip here with his family members. How could he think of returning?”
And unlike many other groups and foreign fighters, “they don’t hide their faces, although this carries a huge risk back home. They don’t plan to return,” says the militant.
The Uighur families have allegedly settled in abandoned towns, previously inhabited by minorities, especially Alawites who fled in fear of persecution, according to two journalists from Idlib.
To help this process, the Turkistan Islamic Party, previously known as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), printed an Arabic language magazine, Turkistan al-Islamiya, introducing the local population and other militant groups to their plight under China’s Communist rule, especially the tensions with the Han settlers, whose immigration has been allegedly encouraged by the government to turn the Uighur into even more of a minority.
“We have been largely unaware of their plight, and their magazine has helped breed some sympathy for their cause,” the Syrian militant said. However, he adds: “They remain largely poor in resources, usually aiming for free rides in transportation.” Since they are latecomers, the Uighur fighters have missed on the great spoils of heavy weaponry from the regime forces.
Reliance on al-Nusra Front
This has reportedly left the Uighur militants totally reliant on Nusra. In fact, their relatively large number enforced the organization’s previously dwindling ranks, as it had suffered in its fight against ISIS.
The Uighur have allegedly played a crucial role in Nusra’s recent gains in the Idlib province. Their military achievements and their abstinence from interfering in civilian issues, such as levying taxes or enforcing Sharia law, has rendered them popular among the population, according to sources in Idlib.
Their alliance with Nusra is believed to be a continuation of long ties with al-Qaeda, and their allegiance to the Taliban movement. Xinjiang borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and their relationship with the Taliban extended beyond the Afghan war in 2001 until the summer of 2015. The party was quick to issue an obituary to the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Omar.
According to militant sources in contact with the TIP, their strained relations with ISIS, are partly due to the latter’s tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Allegiance to Taliban’s leader is of primary significance,” a militant based in Idlib told Al Arabiya English, “they call ISIS ‘Khawarij’ for refusing to pledge allegiance to Taliban’s leader,” whom they consider the true Caliph.
The Uighur presence has wider implications on the prospects for Syria, according to a Syrian journalist based in Aleppo. “The regional and international communities want this conflict prolonged,” he says. “This conflict is no longer about Syrians, it is the mother of many other conflicts.