BEIRUT: 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 organised, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar al-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 Qaeda’s branch in the country previously known as Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the militant Islamic State group and a 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 who fear those same jihadis could one day return home and cause trouble there.

The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) 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.

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 marginalised in their homeland and are seeking to escape repressive rule by the majority Han Chinese.

Since last year Chinese and Syrian officials have been holding regular, once-a-month high-level meetings to share intelligence on militant movements in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“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.

Syrian opposition activists and pro-government media outlets say dozens of TIP fighters have carried out suicide attacks against government forces and their allies and for the past two years have led battles mostly in the north of the country.

The role of the Chinese jihadis in Syria was a topic that Assad spoke about last month in an interview with Chinese PHOENIX TV, saying “they know your country more than the others, so they can do more harm in your country than others.” Unlike other rebel groups, TIP is a very secretive organisation and they live among themselves, according to activists in northern Syria. They are active in parts of Idlib and in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, as well as the Kurdish mountains in the western province of Latakia.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2017

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