Were China to join the Idlib offensive it would allow Beijing to secure the destruction of the Uyghur presence that Turkey helped to foment, while also pressuring Turkey to relinquish the portion of Syrian territory that it is currently occupying.
DAMASCUS, SYRIA — China’s ambassador to Syria, Qin Qianjin, recently told Syria’s Al Watan news service that the Chinese military may soon join the conflict as the Syrian government, along with its allies, sets its sights on retaking the parts of Syria that remain under the control of extremist groups, specifically Syria’s Idlib province.
Speaking to Al Watan in remarks that were later translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Qianjin stated that, after the Syrian government’s victory in retaking Syria’s Daraa province and other southern territories from opposition forces, China’s “military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” He later added that “We – China and its military – wish to develop our relations with the Syrian army.”
Qianjin underscored, however, that China’s participation in the Idlib offensive would require “a political decision,” a decision that will presumably be made before an offensive against Idlib province would begin. Sources in Damascus, such as those cited by journalist Elijah Magnier, have asserted that the upcoming “Battle for Idlib” would likely take place sometime during September.
The Idlib offensive would likely be the last stand for Syria’s foreign-funded, extremist opposition groups, as the province is their only remaining stronghold in Syria, with all other significant portions of Syrian territory that are not under government control being occupied by either Turkish or U.S. forces and their proxies. Idlib itself has largely been dominated by al-Nusra Front, Syria’s Al Qaeda offshoot, in recent years, a fact admitted even by mainstream media. It is thus highly unlikely that any foreign government would come to the aid of Idlib-based opposition forces once an offensive begins, particularly if that offensive is supported by both the Russian and Chinese governments.
The Uyghurs” Beijing has Idlib interests closer to home
Yet China’s interest in rooting out terrorist groups like al-Nusra and other extremists in Idlib goes far beyond merely wanting to aid Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight to reunite Syria and maintain the country’s territorial integrity. Indeed, the Chinese government has long been interested in rooting out the presence of certain elements within the Chinese Uyghur population, namely those who have joined with terrorist elements in Syria, including al-Nusra and Daesh (ISIS). China has stated in the past that the anti-China sentiments of these individuals and their considerable presence in these terror groups is a threat to its national security.
Qianjin, in speaking to Al Watan, alluded to this concern, stating:
We know that the war on terror and Syria’s campaign against the terrorists serve not only the interests of the Syrian people but also the interests of the Chinese people and of [all] the peoples of the world. There has been close cooperation between our armies in fighting the terrorists [who came to Syria] from all over the world, including terrorists who came from China.”
Last year, the Syrian government estimated that around 5,000 terrorists in Idlib were Chinese Uyghurs, meaning that Uyghurs likely represent around an eighth of the estimated 40,000 terrorist fighters currently present in Idlib. Other regional reports, meanwhile, have placed the likely number of Uyghurs there between 10,000 and 20,000.
Since 2012, the Chinese government has acknowledged the flight of Uyghur extremists to Syria, particularly members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings, mass stabbings and other terror attacks in western China over the past several years.
Early on in the conflict, Chinese military officials had warned that these Uyghur militants “are taking advantage of the Syrian civil war to obtain experience and raise the profile of Xinjiang [province of China that is home to the Uyghurs] among jihadists from other theaters.”
That concern still weighs heavily on the Chinese government, as Chinese militants fighting in Syria, now largely contained within the Idlib province, are as eager as ever to the take the fight back to China. Indeed, last December, a Uyghur militant, who identified himself only as Ali, told the Associated Press: “We didn’t care how the fighting went or who Assad was. We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.”
Beijing’s multiple motivations for entering the fray
Fears that Chinese militants — hardened by their battle experiences in Syria — could return home en masse if not defeated in Idlib may be motivation enough for China to join the fight in Syria. However, another potential reason for China to enter the fray is a desire to counter Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having supported Xinjiang’s secession from China in the past, has also been instrumental in allowing Uyghurs to enter Syria, as it was revealed in 2015 that the Turkish government had granted passports to thousands of Uyghur militants to allow their safe passage into Syria. Those militants subsequently joined Syrian armed opposition groups, including those supported by Turkey, at a time when Erdogan was backing Syrian regime change.
Though the threat of regime change in Damascus seems distant at best, were China to join the Idlib offensive it would allow Beijing to secure the destruction of the Uyghur presence that Turkey helped to foment, while also pressuring Turkey to relinquish the portion of Syrian territory that it is currently occupying. Indeed, if Syria is backed by both Russia and China in the Idlib offensive, it is highly unlikely that Erdogan would seek to challenge that alliance in order to maintain control over a sliver of Syrian territory, especially during a time when Turkey’s relationship with the West and the United States, in particular, are arguably at its worst point in years.
Top Photo | Soldiers with the People’s Liberation Army at Shenyang training base in China, March 24, 2007. DoD | Staff Sgt. D. Myles Cullen, U.S. Air Force. (Released)
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.