Seymour Hersh created a stir with his most recent piece in the London Review of Books, Military to Military .
Hersh reported that the Joint Chiefs of Staff under General Dempsey had actively sabotaged President Obama’s Syria policy in 2013, when they took issue with the White House’s apparent acquiescence to Turkey secretly funneling support to unvetted Islamist militants.
The anti-Hersh forces have been in full cry but his claims appears credible. Quite possibly, the Pentagon has fallen out of love with wonk-warrior COIN fetish for the umpteenth time, and has returned to the reassuring “massive use of conventional forces in pursuit of explicit US goals” Powell Doctrine. Anyway, plenty of grist for the mill.
My interest, naturally, was attracted to Hersh’s description of a “Uyghur rat-line” organized by Turkey to funnel militants from the PRC’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region into Syria:
The analyst, whose views are routinely sought by senior government officials, told me that ‘Erdoğan has been bringing Uyghurs into Syria by special transport while his government has been agitating in favor of their struggle in China. Uyghur and Burmese Muslim terrorists who escape into Thailand somehow get Turkish passports and are then flown to Turkey for transit into Syria.’ He added that there was also what amounted to another ‘rat line’ that was funnelling Uyghurs – estimates range from a few hundred to many thousands over the years – from China into Kazakhstan for eventual relay to Turkey, and then to IS territory in Syria.
Hersh also quoted Syria’s ambassador to the PRC:
‘China is concerned that the Turkish role of supporting the Uyghur fighters in Syria may be extended in the future to support Turkey’s agenda in Xinjiang. We are already providing the Chinese intelligence service with information regarding these terrorists and the routes they crossed from on travelling into Syria.’
Hersh also consulted analyst Christina Lin (who quotes me! In her pieces) on the Uyghur issue.
So the Uyghur angle in the LRB article leans on “the analyst”, a source Hersh has relied on since 9/11 and whose conspicuous single-sourciness has been a constant complaint of critics seeking to impugn Hersh’s reporting; a Syrian official perhaps happy to add to Erdogan’s woes by hanging the Uyghur issue around his neck; and an analyst dealing to a certain extent in open source information.
Therefore, I paid attention to a statement Hersh made during an interview with Democracy Now!, describing a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2013:
The third major finding [in the study] was about Turkey. It said we simply have to deal with the problem. The Turkish government, led by Erdogan, was—had opened—basically, his borders were open, arms were flying. I had written about that earlier for the London Review, the rat line. There were arms flying since 2012, covertly, with the CIA’s support and the support of the American government. Arms were coming from Tripoli and other places in Benghazi, in Libya, going into Turkey and then being moved across the line. And another interesting point is that a lot of Chinese dissidents, the Uyghurs, the Muslim Chinese that are being pretty much hounded by the Chinese, were also—another rat line existed. They were coming from China into Kazakhstan, into Turkey and into Syria. So, this was a serious finding.
Unless Hersh is carelessly interpolating a non-sequitur about the Uyghurs in his remarks, it looks like his source told him there was a JCS/DIA finding, based on classified sigint/humint, about Erdogan playing footsie with Uyghur militants.
This is something I am inclined to believe, given the public record concerning the Turkey-Uyghur special relationship, and also the bizarre role of illicit Turkish passports in the travel of Uyghur refugees from Xinjiang, through Southeast Asia, and to their publicly acknowledged safe haven in Turkey. I’ve written about the Turkey/Uyghur issue several times in 2015 including my July piece Uyghurs Move Edge Closer to Center of Turkish Diplomacy, Politics, and Geostrategic Calculation .
The other Uyghur related furor in the news concerns Ursula Gauthier, the Beijing correspondent for L’Obs. China said on Dec. 25 that it’s expelling Gauthier because of an article she wrote pouring scorn on the PRC’s attempts to invoke a massacre of ethnic-Han security personnel and miners, apparently by Uyghurs, at Baicheng in Xinjiang, to claim “war on terror” parity with the Nov. 13 Paris attack. Authorities have refused to renew her visa and she must leave China by Dec. 31.
Details of the Baicheng case don’t quite support Gauthier’s indignation:
The attack occurred on Sept. 18, when a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the gate of the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, before targeting the mine owner’s residence and a dormitory for workers.
When police officers arrived at the mine in Terek township to control the situation, the attackers rammed their vehicles using trucks loaded down with coal, sources said.
Ekber Hashim, a police officer who inspected the mine’s dormitory following the incident, told RFA that “nearly all the workers who were not on shift at the time were killed or injured.”
“Some workers were sleeping while others were preparing to work when the attackers raided the building after killing the security guards,” he said.
Terek township deputy police chief Kurbanjan and his assistant “survived the incident by throwing themselves into the river next to the colliery.”
“They went [to the mine] as part of a second team after five police officers, including police chief Wu Feng, were killed,” said the officer, who also declined to provide his name.
“The second team had no idea everyone in the first team had been killed when they left the station. They turned their motorcycles around and fled when they saw the dead and injured, but the attackers pursued them in trucks and they were forced to drive the bikes into the river to escape.”
Another officer from Bulung named Tursun Hezim said police had received a notice from higher level authorities warning them to keep a lookout for a group of people wearing “camouflage”—a tactic allegedly employed by suspects in other recent attacks in the Uyghur region.
“Based on this guidance, I assume the suspects attacked while wearing uniforms, which allowed them to catch the guards at the colliery and police on the road when they were unaware and successfully make their escape,” he said.
One can’t believe everything one hears in the paper or on RFA, but the Baicheng attack, though executed with primitive implements, does not appear to have been the “Hulk Smash!” explosion of righteous rage by innocent Uyghurs driven to vent their grievances against their oppressors. It was a careful, pre-meditated attack that involved gulling mine security with the use of fake uniforms, murdering dozens of peasant miners, then setting an ambush for two sets of cops as they rushed to the scene.
Understandably, the PRC was keen to label this outrage terrorism. The Western media, apparently led by Gauthier, not so much.
Beleaguered journalists in the PRC may not appreciate my opinion, but I considered Gauthier’s framing quite wrong-headed. Baicheng and Paris are, in my view, strikingly similar in ways that Gauthier appeared unable to appreciate, as blowback against ham-fisted government policies, as I wrote here.
Fact is, the Baicheng outrage appears to come uncomfortably close to a very particular kind of “terrorism-that-we-don’t-want-to-call-terrorism”: political violence committed as part of a decolonization/national liberation struggle.
There is a sizable list of ethnic groups getting brutalized by central government cum occupying forces: Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiris, Uyghurs…to name a few. Resistance by local ethnic/national/religious movements may involve acts of violence intended to bring attention to the cause, demoralize the occupiers, chip away at the resolve of the central government and, in a rather less savory aspect, elicit a violent crackdown that will escalate and spread the violence so local unrest is transformed into a pervasive security and political crisis.
The history of efforts to define “terrorism” is darkly amusing but a consistent theme has been attempts to carve out exemptions for national liberation struggles, not just to soothe the consciences of conflicted liberals, but also to protect overseas supporters from legal sanction.
But openly claiming “national liberation struggle” classification for Uyghurs violence (instead of “localized inchoate fury”) would involve acknowledging that some sort of movement with separatist aims exists and poses a security threat to the PRC and its rule in Xinjiang. This would buttress PRC state propaganda, contribute to the idea that there is something to all the ETIM talk, highlight the existence of Uyghur militants embedded in Islamist groups in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and direct more professional interest to the efforts of Turkey to exploit refugee Uyghurs as a paramilitary resource in Syria—as described in Hersh’s article– and potentially across Central Asia and into Xinjiang.
And it would involve Western media outlets giving up on the “PRC is just making up ‘terrorism’/we can’t credence these reports until our reporters can investigate freely” dodge, which is exemplified by a recurring phrase in RFA reporting on Uyghur-related violence that slides along the explaining/excusing/condoning spectrum in reminding the reader that the Uyghurs of Xinjiang suffer under continual, grinding repression:
“…experts outside China say Beijing has exaggerated the threat from Uyghur “separatists” and that domestic policies are responsible for an upsurge in violence that has left hundreds dead since 2012.”
It would also make life awkward for the World Uyghur Congress and the Uyghur American Association which have carefully positioned themselves as “not separatists” in order to obtain a platform in the West as the voices of peaceful civil society and human rights aspirations of the Uyghur people, for which they received grants of $275,000 and $295,000, respectively from the National Endowment for Democracy in 2014 (the NED classifies this area of activity as “Xinjiang/East Turkistan” which is, given the supposed non-existence of the “East Turkistan Independence Movement”, somewhat interesting).
Fact is, the PRC is not interested in creating a Palestine-type situation in Xinjiang, with a non-violent/democracy inclined opposition attracting sympathy and some diplomatic and material support from the West. That’s probably why Ilham Tothi, who had aspirations to serve as a secular/democratic voice of Uyghurs within the autonomous region, is in jail. The PRC, relying on its military and economic power and, most importantly, the demographic advantage it gains from submerging Uyghurs under a tide of Han immigration (something the Baicheng attack was perhaps meant to discourage), is probably willing to polarize the situation in Xinjiang through oppressive policies and deal with whatever militancy its brutality throws up. In my opinion, the CCP sees Chechnya as the worst-case template/resolution: a national liberation struggle co-opted and discredited by an influx of Islamist-tinged terrorists who are, in turn, destroyed by the state in a brutal, prolonged war, shattering the secular/moderate independence movement in the process.
I expect this scenario will drive PRC diplomacy and security policy throughout Central and South Asia in the foreseeable future; and the politically-inflected debate over the existence of “terrorism” in the western reaches of the PRC will be remembered with bitter nostalgia.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.