Christina Lin

Turkey’s misguided Syrian policy fanning Uyghur insurgency against China

During the Korean War in 1950, US, Turkey and other allies had ignored Beijing’s warnings not to get too close to the Chinese border, prompting Chinese troops to surge across the Yalu River into North Korea. When the war was halted by an armistice in 1953, more than 30,000 American soldiers and 741 Turkish soldiers had died.

Will history repeat itself regarding China’s warnings on Syria?

Obsessed with regime change in Damascus rather than combating ISIS, Ankara appears to be playing a game of proxies with Chinese Uyghurs and antagonizing China, by feeding jihadi groups in Syria and enabling Uyghur militants to swell its ranks via illegal immigration.

Recently Chinese government officials including top intelligence bureaucrats, have traveled to Ankara to raise their concern regarding the illegal trafficking network of supplying Turkish passports to Uyghurs who then travel to Turkey to join jihad in Syria and Iraq.

However, their warnings seem unheeded, and Erdogan is in fact fomenting Uyghur insurgency against China.

Turkey’s rebel coalition includes Chinese Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)

On April 25, 2015 a coalition of rebel forces led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al-Nusra (JN), Chinese Uyghur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Uzbek-led Imam Bukhari Jamaat (IBJ) and Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, defeated the Syrian army at Jisr al-Shughur in northwestern Syria’s Idlib governorate.

According to a recent Terrorism Monitor article, with the Turkey-Qatar-Saudi backed rebel coalition having a direct supply line open from Turkey’s Hatay Province to Idlib, the “rebels may have enough resources to establish a de-facto state in northwestern Syria led by JN and supported by several Central Asian militas.”

This corroborates with the recently released 2012 DIA report that Turkey and Arab Gulf states wanted to create a Salafist statelet in Syria to apply pressure on the Assad regime.

The de facto state, which ISIS condemns for allowing jahliyya (Pre-Islamic) symbols alongside Islamic ones—such as the blue nationalist flag of “East Turkistan” and flag of the Free Syrian Army—would now pose a security threat to China and Central Asian countries as a safe haven for militant groups to launch attacks in the home front. Indeed Chinese militant groups ETIM and TIP had used AfPak as launching pads for terrorists attacks against China, and now Syria/Turkey is what Beijing views as their new AfPak.

TIP was based in AfPak before the Syria war, but in 2013 it began announcing support for Syrian rebels and featured its fighters in Syria in its propaganda. According to counter-terrorism experts, while TIP had 300 fighters in AfPak, its total numbers in Syria now may reach 1,000 militants including male fighters and their families.

The most prominent TIP fighter to emerge from the Jisr al Shughur videos was the spokesman for TIP’s “Syria branch” since 2014, Abu Ridha al-Turkistani.  In the videos he led fighters to take over a building, and climbed a clock tower to plant a black-and-white JN style flag on which “Turkistan Islamic Party” was written in Arabic.

These Uyghur militants have claimed a series of high-profile terrorists attacks in China in 2013 and 2014, with some Uyghurs calling for an intifada against the Chinese communist regime.

Turkey fanning Uyghur insurgency

Erdogan’s support for Xinjiang secession is well known among Chinese counter-terror and intelligence officials. While he was mayor of Istanbul In 1995, Erdogan named a section of the Sultan Ahmet (Blue Mosque) park after China’s archenemy and leader of the East Turkestan independence movement, Isa Yusuf Alptekin. After Alptekin’s death Erdogan erected a memorial in the park to commemorate Eastern Turkistani Sehitlerinin, or martyrs, who lost their lives in the “struggle for independence.”

In 2010 both Beijing and Ankara had tried to improve bilateral ties by upgrading relations to one of strategic partnership, and conducted joint air combat exercises for the first time. Xinjiang was also designated as a friendship bridge, and Ankara hoped improving ties with China with support for the “One China Policy” would lead to better conditions for the Uyghurs.

Relations did improve with increasing investments and trade on both sides, but in 2011 after the Arab Spring erupted and Erdogan’s Islamist agenda in the Middle East made an about face towards China, the Uyghur issue has once again erupted to be a thorn on the side of China.

By deliberately stoking China’s fear about Xinjiang secession and increasing radicalization, thereby egging Beijing on to clamp down on Uyghurs and prompting their exodus to Turkey to join anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, Abdullah Bozkurt of Today’s Zaman observed Erdogan is actually exploiting the ethnic Uyghurs’ plight for his narrow Islamist agenda.

Peter Lee, writer for Asia Times and Counter Punch, in February disclosed the plight of Turkey’s 2000 Chechens where private appeals to join Jihad are backed up with government resource of threatening deportation.

An AI Monitor link disclosed how “though Turkey tolerates the Chechen refugees, many lack residence permits and live in destitute conditions under a constant risk of deportation, activists say. This life in limbo led many Chechens to acquiesce to blackmail-like pressures to join the Syrian war.”

“Not all Chechens volunteered to go to Syria. Some went there unwillingly. They were presented with two options: to go to Syria or face deportation … Individuals who were personally the subject [of such pressure] recount confidentially how certain people would come to convey them this message.”

Lee observed how Turkey providing exiled Chechens as cannon fodder for its Syrian adventure might equally exploit the impoverished and desperate Uyghurs, prompting Abdullah Bozkurt to accuse Turkey’s Islamists of betraying the Uyghurs for its “misdirected cause,” not to mention damaging relations with China.

As such, alarmed by the growth of TIP and IBJ in Syria and blowback of returning jihadists to China, Russia and Central Asia, these governments are coalescing with allies both within Eurasia and in Syria/Iraq to combat this emerging threat. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), dubbed the “NATO of the East”, will convene in Russia in July and likely see the admission of India, Pakistan and perhaps Iran into its fold to collectively combat the three evils of “terrorism, extremism and separatism.”

While Beijing and Moscow have expressed interest in cooperating with the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Turkey’s anti-Assad/pro-Uyghur separatists stance is sabotaging potential cooperation with China. Thus it would be more beneficial for the anti-ISIS coalition if Turkey would stand down on its Assad removal obsession and dividing great powers between a pro-Assad and anti-Assad camp, and rightly focus on combating ISIS thereby uniting the great powers and bringing the full brunt of their collective resources against this true enemy of humanity.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst specializing in China-Mediterranean relations. She has extensive US government experience working on national security issues and was a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) research consultant for Jane's Information Group.
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