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Commando units and rice: the Chinese are coming to Syria

Chinese general Zhang Yang, director of the Central Military Commission's political department, was being investigated over connections to two corruption-tainted former senior officers when he hanged himself
STR (AFP/File)
The Chinese involvement was intended to eliminate the terrorists on Syrian soil

Who is not involved in the civil war in Syria? Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, the United States and more. Russia raised its level of involvement two years ago when it sent a Russian fleet and aircraft to fight against the rebels which changed the course of the war and brought victory to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis. Now it is the turn of the Chinese. Thus far, they have assisted Syria on the diplomatic level and by supplying only weapons. But this week, the first reports emerged of Chinese army units landing in Syria. What is the reason for the direct Chinese intervention? Why should this worry Israel?

- Support the Assad regime -

The Assad regime has received significant aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in its war against the rebels but not from China since 2011. Now there are new reports of direct Chinese involvement in the Arab state. What does Beijing have to look for in Syria and why should it worry Israel?

Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, China has supported Bashar Assad's regime and has vetoed UN resolutions condemning the Syrian regime for decades, Bashar's father had close ties to the Chinese Communist regime. Before the civil war, the volume of trade between Syria and China reached $ 2.2 billion, most of which came from Syria.


Throughout the civil war, there were rumors of Chinese aid to the Assad army and in September 2015 there were also reports of a Chinese aircraft carrier anchored in Tartus port in Syria.

China recently sent a shipment of 1,000 tons of rice to the port of Latakia and promised to send another 4,000 tons of food soon to aid the hunger crisis. About two months ago, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that his country is interested in contributing to the rehabilitation of Syria in cooperation with the international community, especially in the field of construction.

- Tigers against Chinese Al Qaeda -

According to several sources, two Chinese commandos, known as "Siberian Tigers" and "Nimri al-Layla", are about to land in Syria. Their goal is to fight terrorism alongside Russia. But the Chinese units will focus on fighting an organization called the Islamic Party of Turkestan (or the East Turkestan Islamic Party). This organization consists of Chinese (Uyghur) Muslims from Xinjiang Uygur (or Chinese Turkestan) region. The Chinese minority in this region has been oppressed for many years. "The Islamic Party of Turkestan" is not only a dangerous Islamic separatist organization but also affiliated with al-Qaeda.

"The Islamic Party of Turkestan" belongs to the Salafist Jihadist sect, meaning the organization advocates a holy war for the restoration of the Islamic caliphate. The organization's flag in Syria is black with the shahada (declaration of the Muslim faith), adorned with a declaration of assistance to Syria, and it is almost identical to the flag of Fatah al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra).

The Emir, the commander of the organization, is known as Sheikh Abd al-Haq and the number of his fighters is unknown but estimated at 3,000. The organization's fighters came to Syria in 2015 to join the jihad against the "infidel" regime in the Arab state together with their families, apparently before the Russian intervention, when it seemed that the regime in Damascus was about to collapse.


In the same year, the Chinese jihadists played a significant role in the two opposition achievements in the north-western Idlib region: the victory of the rebels in the Jisr al-Shouwar war and the occupation of Abu Zaher Airport, the second largest base of the Syrian army in the north. In fact, the Chinese jihadists helped complete the conquest of the Idlib district by the Syrian regime.

"The Islamic Party of Turkestan" identifies with al-Qaeda and opposes the Islamic State (IS) Organization. Its headquarters are not located in China or Syria, but in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it operates against the US military. Although most of the organization's Syrian arm is concentrated in the Idlib district, some fighters were also seen in Aleppo, north of Latakia and the suburbs of Damascus.

- A threat to China from Syria -

According to reports in the Arab press last weekend, the "tigers"--the Chinese commando units--were sent to Syria for the first military parade organized by the Islamic Party of Turkestan in Idlib last month. At the parade, the organization demonstrated its power and stunned the Chinese with the amount of weapons it had accumulated, in several trucks laden with fighters, T-62 tanks, and various types of machine guns.

The old Russian-made tanks are apparently spoils from the Syrian army during the wars alongside the rebels. During the march, activists of the Chinese Jihadist organization threatened to hit targets on Chinese soil.

- The Chinese are coming -

In a visit to China last week, Assad's media adviser, Buthaina Shaabanshe, gave the Chinese a green light to act against the Islamist organization in Syria. Chinese activity is supposed to be mutually beneficial to the Syrians and the Chinese. The elimination of the Chinese jihadists will weaken the opposition and improve the chances of the Syrian army taking control of the Idlib district in the future.

As far as China is concerned, there is an urgent need to eliminate the Chinese jihadist organization in Syria for two important reasons.


First, the organization took advantage of the rebels' takeover of Idlib in 2014, contacted the most powerful organization in the province -- Jabhat al-Nusra --and as a result of neglecting the problem, it grew and became far too strong, even daring now to send direct threats against the People's Republic of China. The Chinese also fear that in Asia, the organization may create an international terrorist network by strengthening ties with other jihadist organizations and cooperating with them against China in the future.

Second, to the extent that US and Russian effrots at the Geneva Conference will successfully put an end to the civil war in Syria, the fighters will leave the Syrian domain and return to China, where they will undoubtedly act as ticking time bombs and strengthen Islamic terror organs in the Asian power. The same problem will arise following the elimination of the Da'ash organization, with thousands of volunteers from the Islamic State (IS) returning to Europe and their Arab countries of origin.

The Chinese involvement was intended to eliminate the terrorists on Syrian soil before they could make good on their threats, while exploiting Russian control over most of the country and its ports. However, the Chinese landing may also encounter the opposition of Turkish military forces deployed in the Idlib district supposed to supervise the ceasefire. It is possible that the Chinese involvement is nothing more than an exercise by the Syrian regime aimed at alienating the Turks from Idlib, sabotaging the ceasefire, and renewing the war. In this way, Assad's regime will evade negotiations with the rebels and take over the province he lost three years ago.

- Will China join the Russia-Iran-Assad-Hezbollah axis? -

The scope of Chinese involvement at this stage is limited. Not only does this complicate the war in Syria, but it is also liable to ignite new and unexpected wars in the northwest region of the Arab state.

The whole emergence of the Chinese jihadists reveals the severity of the problem of the Idlib district, which has become a global jihad terror harbor. Developments in northern Syria indicate the decline of the IS from the terror landscape and the return of Al-Qaeda to the global jihad arena.


The Chinese involvement in Syria further strengthens the position of the Syrian regime, which is now supported by Russia, China, and Iran, further reducing the chances of the rebels surviving. The Chinese involvement should worry Israel, not only because the Chinese are strengthening the axis of "resistance" directed against Israel. If thus far Russian arms have been smuggled from the Syrian army into the hands of Hezbollah, now that China is deepening its involvement, the Shiite organization may also acquire military equipment.

This article published courtesy of Ynet: Commando units and rice. The Chinese are coming to Syria

Dr. Yaron Friedman, a commentator on Arab affairs, is a graduate of the Sorbonne University in Paris, a lecturer on Islam and teaches Arabic at the University of Haifa in the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Department of Humanistic Studies at the Technion. Leiden in 2010.


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