Will Turkey’s invasion of Syria draw China into the war?

Turkey is crossing Chinese red lines and assaulting Beijing’s “One China Policy” and sovereignty over its Muslim province of Xinjiang, which Ankara refers to as East Turkestan.

Using China’s recent counter-terrorism measures as an excuse to refer Beijing to the UN for human rights violations, Ankara is resorting to legal warfare, or “lawfare”, to de-legitimize the Chinese government’s sovereignty over its territory. Additionally, Ankara’s recruitment for Syria’s anti-Assad groups that include Uyghur separatists is fanning insurgency in Xinjiang, risking escalation of broader conflict between Ankara and Beijing.

On 29 June, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued a statement to condemn China’s domestic policy regarding a ban on fasting during Ramadan for government employees, fanning anti-Chinese protests that erupted in some 40 locations throughout Turkey during the week, with demonstrators surrounding the Chinese consulate in Istanbul and attacking random Chinese restaurants.

Hundreds of members of AKP’s youth branch shouted slogans such as “Long live hell for torturers” and “We stand with East Turkestan” outside the consulate, and a public screening in an AKP stronghold in Ankara’s outskirts saw Party Vice-Chairman Suleyman Soylu attend a broadcast called “What is happening in East Turkestan.”

One wonders if Erdogan is stirring the Xinjiang pot to support his neo-Ottoman vision as ruler over the Muslim and Turkic world.

It is an open secret that Erdogan supports Xinjiang secession to become an independent East Turkestan “under Turkey’s responsibility,” similar to attempts of installing and backing pliant Muslim Brotherhood regimes in Syria, Egypt, Libya and Gaza (via the Brotherhood’s Palestinian arm Hamas) under Ankara’s “neo-Ottoman” sphere of influence.

Erdogan’s support for Xinjiang separatists is well known among Chinese counter-terror and intelligence officials. He named a section of the Sultan Ahmet Park after East Turkestan Independence movement leader Isa Yusuf Alptekin while he was mayor of Istanbul in 1995, and after Alptekin’s death Erdogan erected a memorial in the park to commemorate Eastern Turkistani Sehitlerinin, or martyrs.

On the wall near the memorial were the words “Pray for Muslim Citizens of East Turkestan that have been oppressed and assimilated by Communist Chinese Regime!” as well as a quote by Alptekin: “Now is the time for liberation of east Turkestan!”

While inaugurating the park Erdogan said, “…East Turkestan is not only the home of the Turkic peoples, but it is also the cradle of Turkic history, civilization and culture…the martyrs of East Turkestan are our own martyrs…may their struggle always be remembered. Today the culture of the people of East Turkestan is being systematically sinocized.”

Moreover, obsessed with regime change in Damascus rather than combating ISIS, Ankara also appears to be playing a game of proxies with Chinese Uyghurs and antagonizing China. 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 before returning to attack the Chinese homeland.

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

Turkey fanning Xinjiang Insurgency in China

The insurgency is exacerbated by the fact that Turkey’s rebel coalition, The Army of Conquest, includes Chinese Uyghur-led terrorist group, Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). On April 25, 2015 a coalition of rebel forces led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat-al-Nusra, Chinese–led TIP, Uzbek-led Imam Bukhari Jamaat 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.”

The de facto state 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.

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. Counter-terrorism experts estimate 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. Thus 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.

Will Turkey draw China into Syria?

With Turkey fanning Xinjiang insurgency against China, Ankara should brace itself for probable Chinese support for an independent Kurdistan, since the Chinese had previously warned that, “if you touch the Uyghurs, we will touch the PKK.” Despite lack of official support, the Chinese secret service has traditionally supported the PKK and Barzani-Talabani movements in northern Iraq as leverage over Turkey’s support for Xinjiang secession.

Now that Turkey is poised to invade Syria and threaten the Syrian Kurds that are battling ISIS, China may support and arm the Kurds. China has a massive intelligence presence in Turkey and monitors ground situations through the Third Bureau of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff’s Second Department (military intelligence). The station in Turkey is one of the most important, and presumably one of the most active, of all the Third Bureau stations.

Additionally, Beijing not only engages in intelligence collection in Turkey, but also in infiltrating Uyghur organizations through moles and sleepers. These Uyghurs are loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and because they look Turkic, can easily have infiltrated Turkey’s rebel forces in Syria.

It is interesting to note that this is not the first time China and Turkey come close to stumbling into a military confrontation over Syria.

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 Hafez al-Assad 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.”

China and Turkey did battle each other during the Korean War, with Turkish troops bayoneting 900 Chinese troops in the bloody battle of Kunu ri and when the armistice was signed in 1953, Turkish troops suffered 3,277 casualties with 721 dead and thousands wounded or missing.

Now would history repeat itself with Xi Jinping supporting President Hafez’s son Bashar should Turkey invade Syria? The ball appears to be in Turkey’s court and only time will tell.

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a California-based academic and consultant specializing in China-Mediterranean/Middle East relations. She has extensive US government experience working on China security issues, including policy planning at the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and National Security Council--where she also worked on CFIUS cases.
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