Christina Lin

Can Trump reset US-China relations in Syria?

Recently, Chinese Uyghur jihadists in Syria, operating under the banner of either the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), have posted photos of suicide bombers in their current participation of the “Syrian rebel” offensive to break the siege of east Aleppo.

US de facto support of anti-Chinese militants

In addition to their increasing arsenal of tanks, US-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles, Grad missiles, and likely anti-aircraft MANPADS, now TIP has access to drones that they used to record their suicide campaigns against the Syrian army.

As analyst Christoph Germann wrote in a recent article, “due to their ‘inter-mingling’ with Ahrar al-Sham and other so called ‘moderate opposition forces,’ both the TIP and Nusra have enjoyed the protection of the United States and its allies despite being designated as terrorist organizations.” The fact that they are part of the Army of Conquest (Jaish al Fatah) armed and funded by Turkey/Saudi Arabia/Qatar, also means they have become a powerful fighting force—battle hardened after five years of fighting in Syria, with increasing financing and access to advanced western weaponry.

These western weapons enhance anti-Chinese militants’ war-fighting capabilities to launch future attacks on China and Chinese interests.  After the August TIP/Al Nusra-orchestrated suicide bombing attack against the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan, and the prospect of Idlib and East Aleppo being used as launching pads for future attacks, Beijing is stepping up its security posture and considering surgical strikes.

China considers surgical strikes in Syria

If US decides to up the ante and impose a no fly zone to protect the Conquest Army, this could force the Chinese to escalate militarily as well. Just as Israel discussed with Russia its red lines in Syria regarding use of chemical weapons and transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, Chinese red lines would likely also be advanced arms transfers to TIP which they consider the anti-Chinese ISIS in Jaish al Fatah.

While some observers may cite China’s non-intervention policy as a constraint on its military involvement in Syria, as a recent Global Times article clarified, China’s non-interference policy “does not mean that it should stay on the sidelines when its interests are badly damaged by terrorism overseas” and recommended “direct attacks abroad, including surgical strikes by the Chinese military, should not be excluded when necessary.”

The growing presence of Asian “rebels” in Aleppo and Idlib—especially from Uzbekistan and China—has been a concern for China and Central Asian states.

While TIP has a large presence in Jisr al Shugur in Idlib governorate, setting up schools and training sites for jihadi cubs to eventually take jihad back to China, many have also moved to Aleppo and are taking part in western-backed “rebel” offensive against the Syrian army. According to a family that recently escaped out of al Nusra/armed opposition-controlled east Aleppo, “When Fatah al-Islam came from Idlib, they told civilians to join then but very few did. We saw a lot of Saudi and Gulf and even Azerbaijani and Afghan and Chechen and Chinese fighters…the Chinese Uighurs brought their families with them to the suburb of Khan al-Asal.

Given that China depends on a secure supply of energy to fuel its economic growth that supports the Communist regime’s legitimacy, after ISIS and al Qaeda groups destabilized oil-rich countries such as Libya and Iraq and threatening to do the same in Central Asia, this is forcing China to step into the fray in Afghanistan and Syria. It is seeking counter-terrorism cooperation with regional countries as well as with the EU, and despite bilateral discussions with the US regarding similar cooperation, there exists deep mistrust.

Syria as laboratory to re-set US-China relations

Not least of which is continual US hostile rhetoric and war games against China, including the 2013 and 2015 Talisman Sabre exercises with Australia to impose a naval blockade to cut off China’s oil supply and market access to the Middle East and Africa. The amphibious war game involving 30,000 Australian and US military personnel was so provocative that it even prompted Australia’s acting Greens leader, Scott Ludlam, to express concern that “I don’t think we should be preparing for a war with China…most people join the ADF [Australian Defence Force] expecting that they’re there for the defence of Australian territory” and not “about landing on beaches and invading other people’s countries.”

China not only perceives a hostile US in its eastern flank that could cut off its energy supply, but also in its western flank in Syria and the Middle East. With the US and Turkey’s support for anti-Chinese militants, this further feeds the distrust and risks miscalculation in a repeat of history.

In October 1957, following a few months of deteriorating relations between Syria and Turkey that brought them to a brink of a border war, China stood on Syria’s side.

On October 17, 1957, Mao Zedong sent a telegram to then Syrian president Shukri Quwatly that said, “At a time when United States imperialism is goading Turkey to carry out provocations against Syria in a plot to start a war of aggression, I hereby reiterate the firm and just stand of the Chinese government and people resolutely to support the Syrian people in their just struggle to defend their independence and peace.”

Now that Erdogan has invaded northern Syria with US support, while TIP/Nusra enjoy western protection in Idlib and Aleppo that enables further attacks on Chinese citizens and interests, history is repeating itself with Xi Jinping supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad. With a new Trump administration focused on countering ISIS and Al Qaeda rather than overthrowing governments in the Mideast–which aligns with Chinese goals–it may be prudent for US to use this opportunity to reset relations and work with China, and establish some mechanism for dialogue and crisis management to prevent any miscalculations in Syria.

Earlier version published in Asia Times on November 9, 2016.

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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