The Syrian conflict has an endless capability to surprise analysts as seemingly every other day a new element, unprecedented in the Syrian civil war, comes to the surface. Such is the case with the arrival of the first Chinese Army special forces unit, “the Night Tigers,” to Syria’s Tartous port on the Mediterranean, according to reports in Arab media close to the Assad and Tehran regimes (the Al-Mayadeen TV channel).2 The Night Tigers were dispatched by Beijing to fight the Uyghurs, the Muslim Chinese ethnic group fighting with the rebel forces against the Assad regime.
According to these press reports, Beijing planned to send two units from the Special Operations Forces – the “Tigers of Siberia” and the “Night Tigers” – to assist Assad’s regime against Chinese Uyghurs fighting with radical Muslim organizations in Syria. However, unlike the news reporting about the arrival of the “Night Tigers,” no confirmation has been received yet on the second unit.
According to the Syrian ambassador to China, some 5,000 ethnic Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang province are presently in Syria. President Assad stressed the “crucial cooperation” between Syria and Chinese intelligence against Uyghur militants last year. Following the visit of Chinese Admiral Guan Yufi mid-2016 to Syria, the Chinese military has been present in Syria to train Syrian forces on Chinese-made weapons, intelligence gathering, logistics, and field medicine.3
Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria and Iraq, Uyghurs have flocked to the Middle East and joined the rebel forces fighting the Assad regime and the Iranian-backed Shiite regime in Iraq. The Uyghurs joined various jihadist militias, such as the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, Hayaat Tahrir el-Sham, and ISIS.
The first reports that Uyghurs returned home to Western China from Syria emerged in July 2013, revealing that Uyghurs were present in the combat areas long before. The Chinese government has alleged that “more than 1,000” Xinjiang separatists have received terrorist training in Afghanistan and claims to have arrested 100 foreign-trained terrorists who made their way back to Xinjiang.4
Fearing the irredentist currents provoked by the separatist Uyghurs and facing the increased violence in Xinjiang Province, the Chinese central government has pursued a policy meant to neutralize the separatist tendencies in that region of China.
It is obvious that the Chinese government has not succeeded in containing the Uyghur separatist threat in the Xinjiang province. The measures adopted against the Uyghurs have boomeranged to such an extent that more terrorist attacks occurred in the provinces and outside China since the end of 2016. Moreover, as reported in July 2016 by New America, a U.S. think tank, Chinese religious restrictions on Muslims in Xinjiang may have driven more than 100 to join ISIS.5 The attacks perpetrated by the Uyghurs follow almost the same patterns as those conducted by Islamic radicals (ISIS and others) in other places worldwide such as car-ramming, suicide bombers, and knife-wielding attackers. But, unlike other places on the globe, the attacks are not publicized by the Chinese government, which keeps a tight grip on the information. As a Reuters correspondent put it: “The government has delayed reporting some previous incidents in Xinjiang, and limits on foreign journalists working there make it almost impossible to reach an independent assessment of the region’s security.”6
The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and the recent successes of Assad’s troops in Syria against the rebels seem to have created a crisis to which Beijing is trying to find solution before hundreds of Uyghurs fighters return home after fighting in the ranks of the rebels, fully trained for guerrilla warfare. Their experience may have a great impact in the manner the separatist Uyghurs are waging their war today. Added to the latest Uyghur threats to“shed blood like rivers,”7 one can anticipate that the Uyghur problem has grown to a dimension unknown in the past.
With this in mind, these exceptional circumstances may have pushed Beijing to deploy its elite troops to Syria to contain the possible flow of Uyghur fighters back to China. In parallel and as a quid pro quo, Beijing has expressed to the Syrian regime its interest in participating in the reconstruction effort of Syria and its readiness to invest billions of dollars to that effect.8
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2 http://www.syrianews.cc/chinese-night-tigers-special-forces-arrive-syria; https://mirastnews.net/2017/12/01/des-unites-delites-chinoises-doperations-speciales-pour-aider-le-combat-dassad-contre-linsurrection-djihadiste/; See also JCPA article, Jacques Neriah, Chinese Approach to Radical Islam, https://jcpa.org/article/chinese-approach-radical-islam/
6 Nate Rosenblatt, “All Jihad Is Local – What ISIS’ Files Tell Us About Its Fighters,” https://na-production.s3.amazonaws.com/documents/ISIS-Files.pdf