By Ty Joplin
China appears to be closely monitoring the upcoming military operation to retake rebel-held Idlib. Although surface-level analysis has attributed China’s renewed interest in Syria to its campaign to engage the world more actively, China has a very specific reason to monitor the consequences of the Idlib operation as opposed to any other front of the Syrian war.
Right now in Idlib, there are up to 2,000 jihadi fighters who hail from China’s restive Xinjiang province. They belong to the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), and they likely smuggled themselves into Syria in order to give their cause a global platform, gain experience and to make connections with other radical groups. Their stated mission is to create an independent Islamic state in Xinjiang.
The Chinese Ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, reportedly said that China’s "military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.” Even though China has since specified that they are not taking part in the operation militarily, they are likely watching over its developments.
Battle-hardened members of TIP returning to China or escaping Syria to continue operating in Pakistan represents a profound security threat to China, especially as its ongoing repression of its Muslim population in Xinjiang is creating resentment towards the Chinese state.
As such, China would like to see them killed or otherwise neutralized in the Idlib operation.
There have been unverified reports of Chinese special forces operating in Syria in the course of the war, which generally point to China’s ongoing interest in monitoring or intervening to take out radical jihadis whose primary goals lie in combatting China.
China has ramped up its securitzation of the Xinjiang province to Orewellian levels, partly because much of the infrastructure it is building to link China to the rest of the world goes through Xinjiang. Any militant activity in Xinjiang could prove disastrous for China and its ambitious Belt and Road Initative.
The Turkistan Islamic Party’s operations in Syria have received little attention thus far, but their connections to al-Qaeda affiliates operating in the country and their local reputation as a well-armed militant force make them one of the most potent rebel groups currently operating in Syria.
Uyghur fighters began appearing as early as 2012 in Syria, but only publicized their presence in later years, eventually releasing photos and videos of their operations and members.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the fighters and their families live in relative isolation from Syrians. They also reportedly do not impose strict laws upon the Syrians near which they live, creating “a state of satisfaction and goodwill between the people of the area and the [TIP] fighters.”
TIP’s fighters are ethnically Uyghur Chinese, a Turkic group who primarily practice Islam and live in northwest China. China’s Uyghur population has long harbored separatist ambitions from China, which has cracked down on the Uyghur minority population, creating and selectively enforcing secularist laws against them.
The group has been involved in several Aleppo offensives in conjunction with other opposition groups, and helped solidify Idlib under opposition rule, making them an important military force in the country’s north.