Idlib, Syria. Map: Wikimedia Commons
Idlib, Syria. Map: Wikimedia Commons

As the Syrian Arab Army begins a counter-terror operation in Idlib province, which the senior US envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, has described as “the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” China is watching carefully.

At stake for China and Central Asian countries is the large presence of Uzbek and Chinese Uyghur militants that may go back where they came from. For Beijing, how it responds to returning jihadis may alter the security situation in Xinjiang and the rest of China.

The Central Asian ‘Blackwater of Jihad’

A recent article by Joseph Hope published by the Jamestown Foundation discussed several indicators that Uyghurs in Syria considered China the next target.

In early 2017, an Islamic State video portrayed a group of Uyghurs threatening China, and notably Malhama Tactical – a mainly Uzbek group known as the “Blackwater of Jihad” that trains various jihadi groups in Idlib – claimed to have added Chinese nationals to its instructor ranks and trained fighters in the al-Qaeda affiliate Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). According to the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, the group is also marketing itself somewhat to Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Malhama means “Armageddon,” and the fighters are heavily armed and expertly kitted with body armor and ballistic helmets. They are similar to other private military contractors, except Malhama only services extremist groups and its videos are marked by nasheed playing in the background.

While a full-fledged terror attack in Xinjiang may seem fanciful at present, some analysts observe that Malhama Tactical’s threats to Beijing are now expanding from Syria to Xinjiang, and its capacity to “shape angry Uyghur youth into elite fighters” would not only threaten Xinjiang but also the land corridors of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In his article, Hope assesses that the risk to Beijing is not the threat of thousands of fighters returning to wage an open battle, but that a few highly trained extremists could slip through the security cracks to become “powerful force multipliers who may introduce leadership, technical and tactical knowledge, resources, and radicalization methods to the community.”

Unfortunately, this threat will likely reinforce China’s heavy-handed policy in Xinjiang, which in turn may drive disaffected Uyghur youths to radicalization that then further reinforces harsh policies. This vicious cycle would not bring further stability to the region. But it can be hoped that the current operation to neutralize the threat of terrorism and extremism in Idlib and its linkage to Xinjiang would incentivize Beijing to loosen its coercive measures in the autonomous region.

Syria-Afghanistan counterterrorism front

Neutralizing terrorist actors in Afghanistan would also need to be included, given that the TIP’s own literature treats the Afghan- and Syrian-based operations as parts of the same endeavor. Last month the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal documented that the TIP’s new leader in Syria was dispatched from Afghanistan, demonstrating “the connectivity between the TIP’s operations in Afghanistan and Syria, as the two TIP veterans went from serving the Taliban (that is, the self-declared ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’) to leading the charge with al-Qaeda in the Levant.”

China understands the linkage between the two theaters and in August 2016 implemented a comprehensive counter-terror approach for the “two Afghanistans.” On August 4, 2016, China formed an anti-terror alliance with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan, which a US State Department spokesman at the time, Mark Toner, said Washington welcomed as a “positive” for the region.

A few weeks later China signed military agreements with the “second Afghanistan” – Syria – to provide humanitarian aid and anti-terror assistance. China already has a long history of training Afghan security forces, and as the TIP opened a new front in Syria, Beijing likewise stepped up its aid to the Syrian security forces.

However, it is unclear if Washington would equally view Chinese anti-terror endeavors in Syria as a “positive” development similar to Afghanistan, given the stovepipe organizational structure of the US military and intelligence apparatus, and the division of geographic AORs (area of responsibility) with little cross-fertilization of information. A prime example of this ineffectiveness played out in 2016, when the CIA-backed jihadist opposition in Syria battled Pentagon-backed Kurdish fighters, highlighting that America was in effect having a proxy war against itself.

To avoid such dysfunctional policies in the future, it might be helpful for the US government to have a more comprehensive and holistic approach to counter-terrorism and remove some of the organizational stovepipes.

If Washington is serious about combating terrorism, then it should also be understanding of Asian countries’ real concerns regarding the terrorist threats emanating from Idlib, put aside its unhealthy obsession with regime change, and seek ways for meaningful anti-terror cooperation with Asian powers to neutralize the threat in both Syria and Afghanistan.

Christina Lin

Christina Lin is a US-based foreign policy analyst. She has extensive government experience working on US national security and economic issues and was a CBRN research consultant for Jane's Information Group.

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