The Syrian ambassador to China claimed on Monday that 5,000 ethnic Uighurs, members of a Muslim minority in western China, are fighting with jihadists in the Syrian Civil War.
The Chinese government has previously warned of the growing Muslim insurgency within its own borders, blaming the Uighurs for a number of terrorist attacks inside China. The Uighurs have resisted heavy-handed Chinese restrictions on their customs and religious practices, and have cited the government crackdowns on resistance as further signs of repression of their culture and faith.
Previous numbers had placed the numbers of Uighurs fighting with jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria at around 100, but their actual numbers are likely impossible to estimate at this point. A recently released video from the Islamic State shows Uighur fighters for the first time publicly proclaiming allegiance to ISIS.
The claim on behalf of the Syrian ambassador is likely an attempt to stoke Chinese fears of the capabilities of the growing Uighur insurgency in Xinjiang province, an area subject to Uighur terror attacks and associated government crackdowns through the use of paramilitary riot police. The Chinese have been eager to draw a connection between their internal Uighur insurgents and the global threat of ISIS as a way to justify their internal military and police operations against the Uighurs as ‘counter-terrorism.’
The Syrian ambassador did say that while some Uighurs were fighting alongside ISIS, the majority within Syria are fighting independent of any Arab jihadist group, and placed their numbers between 4-5,000. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has previously warned of the threat from Uighur militants in his country, and has played up the increasingly close cooperation between Chinese and Syrian intelligence as “on the rise.”
However, because the claim of thousands of Uighurs fighting in Syria cannot be verified, it’s possible the Syrians are hyping the threat to lure Chinese investment into the country, something long sought after by Assad. Now, as he attempts to consolidate power and rebuild the country’s infrastructure, foreign investment will be critical. Getting the Chinese more directly involved in the conflict will only help the regime.
Aboud Sarrouf, a member of the Syria-China business council, is hoping for Chinese investment and acknowledges the security concerns of Chinese business. “They are preparing and waiting for the right time. They are a little bit reluctant and hesitating,” he said.
Image courtesy of Defense Update