How China's Uighur abuse fuels terrorism
Russia's decisive intervention in support of Syria's Assad regime has been greeted with howls of displeasure in western capitals. But one country which will be delighted with the move and watching its results closely is China.
China has dismissed speculation that it too is poised to intervene militarily in the Syrian imbroglio. But seen from Beijing, Russian air strikes and the Syrian Army ground operations that follow will have a direct impact on China's most serious internal security threat: escalating Uighur Muslim unrest in its western Xinjiang region.
Some of the air campaign has hit the so-called Islamic State (IS), but as Western critics have pointed out, many more strikes targeted a loose coalition of anti-government forces in northwestern Syria, including elements of the Free Syrian Army. This has less to do with the fact that the FSA is US-backed and promises "democracy" in Syria and more to do with the threat rebel forces pose to Latakia, the Assad regime's coastal heartland.
The largest element of the rebel coalition is the Jaish al Fatah or Army of Conquest, an umbrella alliance of jihadist groups set up in March this year and supported and armed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. It includes two powerful Islamist factions, Jabhat al Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise, and the Ahrar al Sham, along with several smaller central Asian groups. One of these is the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a UN-designated terrorist organisation led and mostly manned by ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang.
TIP -- usually referred to by Chinese officials as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement or ETIM -- has been blamed by Beijing for most of the violence in Xinjiang. It first arrived in Syria in 2012 when some of its fighters shifted from the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderlands. Since then its fortunes and numbers -- its Syrian battalion claims over 1,000 fighters -- have risen.
Part of the expansion was the result of the arrival in the summer of last year of hundreds of Uighur families fleeing repression in Xinjiang. After crossing the border from Turkey, the refugees moved into abandoned Christian and Shia villages behind the front-lines in northern Latakia where entire new communities became established with schools and training camps publicised by TIP's propaganda arm.
Militarily, TIP has been punching well above its weight. In late March its fighters were at the forefront of a jihadist offensive which seized Idlib city and went on to overrun most of the province. Last month they participated in the capture of of the Abu Duhur air base, one of the last government outposts in Idlib.
IS has also attracted some Xinjiang Uighurs. But from China's perspective it is the TIP, well organised and Uighur-led, which serves as the main seed-bed for future terror. And Beijing's calculation can only be a simple one: the more TIP militants killed under Russian air strikes and Syrian army ground fire today, the fewer will be headed home with military skills in the years to come.
The flip-side for Beijing in pre-empting the threat of domestic terrorism is stemming the flow of Uighur migrants fleeing the suffocating lock-down imposed by the security forces in Xinjiang. Once a trickle through the Central Asian -stans, by last year the exodus became a flood through Southeast Asia. Numbers are imprecise but conservative estimates put Uighur refugee arrivals in Turkey over the past two years at 5,000-6,000 with more on the road.
How many have opted to settle in Turkey and how many have been cajoled or encouraged into moving into Turkey's rebel-held zone of influence in northwest Syria is also difficult to gauge. But if the influx in the summer of 2014 is any yardstick, numbers that have moved into Syria are certainly over 1,000 and possibly 2,000 or more.
In short, for both Uighur militants and the Chinese state the underground railroad through Southeast Asia is far more than just a route for individuals seeking greener pastures: it is a strategic factor in an escalating war. Hence the importance for Beijing in stemming the flow; and hence the lethal vehemence of the terrorist response in Bangkok in August, after the flow was not just checked but reversed with the Thai government's July rendition of over 100 Uighurs back to China.
Politically and geographically, Turkey's role in all this has been central. There is no doubt that as a matter of state policy -- and to the fury of Beijing -- Ankara has facilitated the flight of its persecuted ethnic cousins with the provision of travel documents. Nor is it any secret the growing power of Jaish al Fatah has hinged on Turkish, Saudi and Qatari support channelled through Turkey's national intelligence organisation, the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT). It is hardly possible that hundreds of Uighur families could have moved en masse across Turkey's border into Syria unnoticed by MIT.
How TIP and its jihadist allies emerge from the current Russian-led campaign remains to be seen. The group may be decimated as the Chinese government doubtless hopes. But thanks to US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles and shaky Syrian Army numbers and morale, the anti-Assad forces may also hold the line or even emerge reinforced and stronger.
It remains to be seen whether Beijing can stem the Uighur exodus through Southeast Asia as effectively as it has through Central Asia where China's friends in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation have indeed proved cooperative.
Last week the Chinese were urging closer counter-terrorism (CT) intelligence exchanges with Asean states at a two-day ministerial dialogue on security cooperation in Beijing. The emphasis was clearly on the Uighurs. Rather less clear was whether the Erawan bombing and its implicit threat will encourage or deter the sort of robust response the Chinese are seeking.
Ultimately, however, Beijing's CT challenge lies not in Southeast Asia or Syria but in Xinjiang. Unlike Bangkok bombing, which reflected obvious professionalism, almost all recent attacks by Uighurs inside China have involved men wielding knives in suicidal desperation and blind fury. These emotions are increasingly feeding into TIP's jihadist agenda but are certainly not driven by it.
The real drivers of violent unrest in Xinjiang are unyielding state policies aimed at weaning 8 million conservative -- but religiously moderate -- Uighur Muslims away from their "backward" traditions and turning them into something they will never be: secular, alcohol-drinking economic achievers with a real stake in Xi Jinping's "China Dream". But it is heavy-handed pressure for assimilation that fuels the appeal of TIP and sowing the seeds of future terror, and Russian bombs will do nothing to stop that.
Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane's.
Anthony Davis is a security consultant and analyst with IHS-Jane’s.