There are many different factions fighting in Syria: well over a hundred of them, according to the architects of the current cease-fire plan. Al Arabiya judges one of the more unusual factions to be the Uighurs, a Muslim minority from China.
Some believe the Uighurs are a proxy force for China in Syria, or perhaps they are the hidden hand of some other foreign power. Whatever their motivations, they seem to be replacing the population displaced by the long and brutal Syrian civil war in certain provinces.
Al Arabiya reports Syrians were surprised to find the number of Uighurs in their midst increasing dramatically over the past year. The new arrivals are very different from the older, much smaller Uighur contingent, which was largely allied with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front, and has played an important role in Nusra’s military gains, at a heavy cost in casualties. Al Arabiya notes the Uighur fighters are viewed more favorably by Syrian civilians than the Islamist gang’s regular forces because they are not involved in shaking the locals down for money or imposing Islamic law.
There are said to be thousands of Uighurs in the northern Idlib province of Syria now, and they look a lot more like settlers, with their families in tow. Some of them are quoted in the article declaring they made a one-way trip to Idlib, selling their homes in China and along the Afghan-Pakistan border to make the perilous journey.
Uighur settlers are receiving assistance from the Turkistan Islamic Party, the Nusra Front affiliate that employed many earlier Uighur arrivals as fighters.
“The Uighur are believed to have been seen in large numbers in disparate regions of Idlib, including the strategic town of Jisr al-Shoghur, Ariha, and the highlands of Jabal al-Zawiya,” writes Al Arabiya. “They have settled with their families in deserted Alawite towns in Jisr al-Shoghur, a local journalist told Al Arabiya English. Videos have emerged since last October purporting to show them fighting in al-Ghab plains in Hama’s western countryside. And in Jib Al-Ahmar in Latakia Province, the propaganda material showcases a tank and U.S. made anti-armor Tow missiles.”
Two theories are advanced about the Uighur migration into Syria, and they are not mutually incompatible. One idea is that China, which has a checkered history with the Uighur minority, is driving them into Syria to get rid of them, backing a Pakistani campaign against Uighur militants along the Afghanistan border.
The other theory is that the Uighurs are China’s unwitting proxy army in Syria, or may serve as a pretext for moving regular Chinese military forces into the theater. One Syrian journalist suggested to Al Arabiya that certain “regional and international communities” want the Syrian civil war prolonged and have sent the Uighurs as reinforcements for al-Qaeda to that end.
Last October, Reason noted the Syrian government and its media have a somewhat different explanation for the Uighur migration: they think the Turks, who have old ethnic connections to the Uighurs, are using them to displace the Syrian population. As millions flee that war-torn land, the Uighurs are essentially moving into their abandoned houses, repopulating northern Syria with a populace much more sympathetic to Turkey.
Syrian media also portrayed the Uighurs as a Turkish proxy force against the Russians and even as covert Turkish reinforcements for the Islamic State.
And yes, because this is the Middle East, Reason notes there is a conspiracy theory that paints the Uighurs as proxies for Israel.
“I tell you, this is a Zionist-American plot. The entire region is being reconstructed. The plan is clear and is written in the Torah and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” fumed Egyptian professor Azza Heikal, only to be topped by an Egyptian television host who charged the Syrian people were being tricked into migrating out of the war zone into Europe, so the sinister Zionists could colonize abandoned Syria with Uighurs.
It seems a little odd that the “Zionists” would view al-Qaeda-supporting Uighurs as an upgrade over the Syrian civilian population, to say nothing of the Uighurs who sign up with ISIS. The UK Express reports that accusation from Li Shaoxian, vice-president of a think tank with ties to China’s Ministry of State Security.
Li speculated there were “many hundreds, or thousands” of Uighur recruits for the Islamic State and worried they might return home with military training that would “constitute a considerable threat to the security of the country of origin.”