Recently Donald Trump applauded Russia’s decision to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. Indeed, the global war on ISIS and terrorism needs a global coalition, including all the permanent member of the UN Security Council—China, Russia, US, Britain, and France.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq operated under a UN mandate, and now that al Qaeda, ISIS (Al Qaeda in Iraq), Al Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria), and other jihadist groups from China, Russia, Central Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and elsewhere have merged in Syrian jihad, a UN mandate is apropos for the continuation of the war on terrorism in Syria.
Moreover, given Eurasian states of Russia, India, and China have large Muslim population at risk of radicalization by their militant groups, with historic rivals India and China even conducting joint anti-terrorism exercise to counter this threat, it is logical that these rising powers should finally step up to the plate and help burden sharing in combating international terrorism.
China—free-rider or responsible stakeholder ?
This is especially so for China, which President Obama criticized as a free-rider and not a responsible stakeholder on global security issues. Indeed after America spent much blood and treasure and lost almost 5,000 troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), China was the biggest beneficiary. It became the largest oil and gas investor in Iraq, prompting Fatih Birol from the International Energy Agency to dub this Beijing-Baghdad oil axis the “B&B” link.
As such when ISIS first made its debut summer of 2014, Gordon Chang in Forbes published an article aptly entitled, “If anyone bombs Iraq, shouldn’t it be China?” A 2012 Financial Times article also predicted “The “B&B” oil link would not only be key for the oil market, but could also force a bigger political and military involvement of China in Iraq and the broader Middle East.”
Now indeed it seems the tides have shifted, with China, India and other Asian states increasingly dependent on Mideast oil while U.S. would soon become an energy exporter. Thus China, along with BRICS and other emerging powers, can partner with the US and Europe for cooperative security on counter terrorism, and together help restore Mideast regional stability and security.
China’s stakes in Syria: anti-Chinese militants in rebel groups
While in Afghanistan China could afford to let US and NATO fight al Qaeda and other terrorists (Taliban, Haqqani Network, etc), in Syria it can no longer sit on the sidelines. Chinese militant group Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) has joined anti-Assad groups and increased its attacks on Chinese territory.
In recent years it carried out several attacks in Xinjiang and praised or claimed ones including the suicide car bombing in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013, mass stabbing attacks at Kunming and Guangzhou train stations in 2014, and double suicide bombings at the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. In February 2014 TIP issued a video offering “advice” to fighters in Syria and several months later featured its fighters in Syria.
Back in October 2012, Chinese government officials including Major General Jin Yinan from the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) National Defense University, already expressed concern that TIP/ETIM were joining anti-government rebels in Syria which “seriously harms China’s national security. ” This was corroborated by visual evidence in March and April 2013, when the first videos of the Chinese rebels emerged.
One of them was released by Liwa al-Mujahideen al-llami (the Mujahideen Media Battalion), and showed a Chinese militant proclaiming that the Muslims and Arabs would now attack the “Chinese economy” in revenge for China and Russia supporting Assad politically, economically and militarily. Another was released by the user “Al-Nusrah Front” entitled “Prayer by a Chinese Jihadist in the Land of Epics [The Levant}.” TIP subsequently released more videos of their role in overtaking Jisr al Shughur along with Al Nusra and Army of Conquest earlier this year, and MEMRI translated a video of Chinese Uyghur colony and TIP training camp describing “this Syrian city looks more like China than Damascus”.
According to counter terror expert Jacob Zenn, he observed that “if the Syrian government were defeated by the rebels, this could provide more opportunities for Uyghur and other anti-Chinese militants to train with victorious rebels groups, such as ISIS, for attacks on China.” Nonetheless, Zenn believes China has the capability to respond with political and possibly military force to combat ISIS other jihadists should they seek to pursue this goal.
Along with capability, China has also increasingly demonstrated its will to be proactive militarily to protect its interests. In October 2014, when an unauthorized mapping drone flew too close to Beijing airport, China deployed 1,226 troops, 123 military vehicles, 26 radar technicians, two fighter jets and two helicopters to defend the city. In early 2015, it produced a draft law to conduct counter terror operations abroad. In 2014 it deployed a battalion of combat troops to UN mission in South Sudan, and last week, Xi Jinping committed $100 million and 8,000 troops to the UN.
UN mandate to release boots on the ground in Syria
US anti-ISIS strategy has faltered the past year due to lack of ground troops and moderate rebels. By ridding Kurdish boots on the ground and replacing them with CIA-vetted “moderate”rebels that end up defecting to Al Qaeda affiliates with US weapons, the Pentagon has suspended its train and equip program.
The problem with US strategy is that it sees trees and not the forest. US has separate anti-ISIS, anti-Al Qaeda, anti-Taliban strategies that neutralize each other—fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan yet supporting them in Syria against ISIS, which was Al Qaeda in Iraq. Distracted by an alphabet soup of various salafist jihadi groups (ISIS, JN, AQI, AQIM, etc.) Washington becomes blindsided to the fact that ultimately they share the same end state of establishing a global caliphate under Shaira, only differing in the means and speed of that goal.
Caliph Al Baghdadi understands this and is now uniting the different tribes (terrorist groups) as wilayat (provinces) spread throughout the greater Middle East—from Boko Harm in Nigeria to factions of Taliban in Pakistan.
Without infantry, Obama-led coalition is ineffective to counter the growth of ISIS as various Islamic extremists groups continue to merge under the ISIS flag. In light of this, obtaining a UN mandate to release Chinese and other international troops under UN flag, or hybrid multinational force including EU, SCO and other partners in a truly global coalition to combat terrorism, should be a welcomed move for all.