The US policy of permanently balkanizing Syria appears to be a foregone conclusion, even as the Syrian Arab Army and Russian forces proceed with their last major counter-terrorism operation in Idlib.
According to Wolfgang Mühlberger, senior fellow for EU-Mideast relations at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, “Idlib is the very Arab Kandahar with potentially more than 100,000 experienced, battle-hardened Sunni jihadi fighters hiding between the civilians.”
This high number is due to the amalgamation of all the militants from de-confliction zones or reconquered battle zones (e.g., Aleppo, Ghouta, Deraa, etc.) throughout Syria that have been shipped to Idlib over the past couple of years, as well as remnants of the Free Syrian Army.
However, despite Washington acknowledging that the governorate is an Al Qaeda safe haven for militants from over 100 countries, the tripartite powers of the UK, US and France are now asking Germany to join planned airstrikes against Syria – as soon as President Bashar al-Assad gives them the green light by using chemical weapons.
It is not entirely clear why the US believes the Syrian president would deliberately provoke western airstrikes on Syrian forces when they are on a winning streak in their war with the terrorists, but it does seem apparent that Washington intends to prevent Syria from regaining sovereignty over Idlib.
As discussed in a previous Asia Times article, RAND Corporation drew up a Syria partition plan wherein the US would occupy the northeast, Turkey the northwest, Russia and Iran the coastal area and large parts of the Syrian desert, and Israel and Jordan the southwest.
The US zone would contain oil fields where 90% of Syria’s pre-war oil production took place, while Israel would control the newly discovered oil reserves in the Golan Heights. Turkey’s control of Idlib as a safe haven for militants would put continued pressure on the Syrian government, and a balkanized Syria would be weak and less likely to provide a viable base for Iran and Hezbollah to attack Israel.
However, the partition of Idlib as a jihadi sanctuary has important implications for another actor – China. Back in August, there were reports that Beijing would participate in the Battle for Idlib due to the presence of Chinese Uyghur jihadi colonies. If Turkey controls Idlib, China fears Ankara and the West would exploit Uyghur militants as proxies to destabilize Xinjiang.
Idlib proxies to destabilize Xinjiang?
There are historical reasons for this concern, given that the CIA tried to destabilize Xinjiang and supported separatists in Tibet during the Cold War. As Israeli sinologist Yizhak Shichor pointed out, in the 1950s Washington tried to exploit Muslim grievances against China and the Soviet Union, by attempting to form a Middle Eastern Islamic pact to organize fifth columns in these countries.
Brian Fishman, a counter-terrorism expert at the New America Foundation, also noted that in the 1990s Osama Bin Laden accused the US and CIA of inciting conflict between Chinese and Muslims. After a series of 1997 bombings in Xinjiang that Beijing ascribes to Uyghur separatists, bin Laden blamed the CIA in an interview, saying, “The United States wants to incite conflict between China and the Muslims. The Muslims of Xinjiang are blamed for the bomb blasts in Beijing. But I think these explosions were sponsored by the American CIA.”
Interestingly at the time, Al Qaeda had its eyes on the West and largely ignored Uyghur separatism as a Chinese domestic issue. But as Fishman assessed, over time the transnational problem of al Qaeda and its allies, and the increasing prominence of Uyghurs in jihadi propaganda, meant that China could no longer avoid them.
Currently, China seems to be steering clear of direct military involvement and instead relies on Syria and Russia, but it would be concerned should Western powers block Damascus and Moscow’s campaign to reclaim Idlib and continue to partition a safe zone for Uyghur militants
Indeed, given that the 2016 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan was a joint operation between Al Nusra and its Uyghur affiliate Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP); the continual supply of advanced weaponry and tacit Western support for TIP due to its intermingling with the “rebel” opposition; professional military training by the private security company Malhama Tactical to improve TIP’s warfighting capabilities; and TIPs ultimate goal to attack China, James Dorsey at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore argued that Beijing mulling military intervention in Idlib underscores the gravity of this threat to China’s core interests.
Currently, China seems to be steering clear of direct military involvement and instead relies on Syria and Russia, but it would be concerned should Western powers block Damascus and Moscow’s campaign to reclaim Idlib and continue to partition a safe zone for Uyghur militants.
Moreover, as Jacob Zenn from the Jamestown Foundation pointed out, China is also concerned by “the prospect of re-shaping the borders in the Middle East that could lead to new conceptions of sovereignty and statehood – not only in the region but elsewhere throughout the Islamic world, including Central Asia and Xinjiang.’
Xinjiang at heart of Belt and Road Initiative
Now it appears that a Western united front is emerging to confront China on human rights issues, using various tools of media coverage, economic sanctions, political activism by NGOs and think tanks to internationalize the Uyghur issue in Xinjiang. Similar to Israel’s dilemma over the internationalization of the Palestinian issue, China is bracing itself for a destabilization campaign and possible call for secession and partition of the province from Chinese sovereignty.
This perception is due to US backing of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, which aspires to revert Xinjiang to an independent East Turkistan. The first president of the Congress was Erkin Alptekin, son of Isa Alptekin, who headed the short-lived First East Turkestan Republic in Kashgar (November 12, 1933 to February 6, 1934), and also served as an advisor to the CIA while working at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich.
The Alptekin family and Xinjiang secession enjoy strong support from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who while being mayor of Istanbul in 1995, named a section of the Blue Mosque park after Isa Alptekin and built a memorial to commemorate Eastern Turkistani martyrs who lost their lives in the “struggle for independence.”
Given resource-rich Xinjiang is at the heart of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), destabilizing the province would not only spoil the plan for Eurasian integration and development, but also weaken China’s economy by cutting off its overland energy supply from Central Asia and the Middle East, hamper its market access, and keep Beijing bogged down in an ethnoreligious conflict.
While this may augment current Washington’s trade war against the Middle Kingdom and weaken the Pentagon’s “peer competitor,” by deliberately stoking Chinese fears about Xinjiang destabilization and increasing radicalization, thereby egging Beijing to clamp down on Uyghurs, is in effect exploiting the ethnic Uyghur’s plight for narrow geopolitical agenda.
And as Yizhack Shichor perceived, “Vocal criticism of China related to its Uyghur persecution comes primarily, in fact almost entirely from outside the Middle East, from Western non-Muslim countries…[which] may have little do to with loving the Uyghurs, and much more to do with opposing China.”