As Syria’s last opposition-held bastion braces for attack from Russian-backed government forces, a reclusive community of Central Asian jihadis is digging in for a protracted fight.
The Uyghur Muslims from China, facing a crackdown in their home province of Xinjiang, form one of the more cohesive fighting contingents in Idlib province: the Turkistan Islamic Party.
“All indicators say they will play an integral role in defending Idlib,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, an academic and journalist focused on Islamic movements. “The party has recently moved some of its forces to play a stronger role in defending the front line against regime attacks.”
Tam Hussein, a journalist focusing on jihadism, says the Turkic Uyghurs, Uzbeks and other Central Asian jihadis who have now lived in Syria for years show no signs of looking for the exits.
“I’m not sure if they’re crack troops. But it’s fair to say they’ll be some of the toughest guys because of what motivates them,” Hussein said, adding: “They’re jihadi in every sense of the word.”
From the start of the insurgency in the neighboring Latakia countryside, the disciplined Central Asians, as well as Chechen battalions, generally refused to accept Syrians in their ranks unless they gave up vices like cigarette smoking.
Former Islamic State (ISIS) spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani was known to surround himself with a “notorious” guard of Uzbeks before being killed in a US-led air strike in northern Syria in August 2016.
“The reason Uzbeks were known to be quite brutal is because they’d come from the dungeons of their home country and experienced barbaric torture,” said Hussein, adding that Uyghur and other Central Asian jihadists traveling to Syria have generally done stints in prison.
While Syrian rebels have been willing to cut deals to vacate towns and relieve war-weary communities as the tide of war turned against them, foreign jihadis are generally insulated from such local pressures or concerns.
Central Asian militants began making their way to Syria in late 2011, as a revolt against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the vacuum of authority turned the country into a global destination for jihadis.
“In late 2011 and into 2012 they began arriving as individual fighters, then in 2013 they entered as the Turkistan Islamic Party,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, whose Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has been tracking the war and its victims for the past seven years.
Uzbeks filled the ranks of the al-Qaeda-allied Tawhid and Jihad and Imam al-Bukhari battalions. ISIS recruited nationals from across Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, publishing videos of the jihadis’ young children training to fight.
An Idlib native who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity said most of the Uyghur and Uzbek “immigrants” settled around Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib city, as well as Turkmen Mountain in neighboring Latakia region, usually with their families in tow.
“They have their own special security and it’s impossible to enter and talk to them. They set up checkpoints around their areas in Idlib and the villages they live in,” he said.
He estimated there were at least 1,000 Turkistan party fighters in those localities, and 3,000 counting their wives and children.
The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, even for journalists who have reported extensively inside Idlib over the course of the war. But Central Asians are ubiquitous in videos that have emerged in the wake of battles in the province, while Western jihadis are barely noticeable, suggesting the numbers to be at least in the low thousands, and possibly far higher.
Uyghurs and other Central Asians have squatted in villages whose minority Alawite and Christian residents fled or were forced out under pressure. When a coalition of jihadist forces overran Idlib city in 2015, Christian homes were gifted to Uyghurs and their families.
The long game
The map of territorial control in Syria has changed drastically since the fall of Idlib. It is now the last opposition bastion in the country and feasibly within Assad’s stated goal to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory.
Russia, which last year agreed to designate Idlib a deconfliction zone to be overseen by Turkey as part of the Astana Process, has now sided with its impatient Syrian ally.
At a September 7 summit in Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to brush off his Turkish counterpart’s concerns of new wave of refugees on his border. Their host, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, agreed the battle was “unavoidable,” leaving his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his own.
A spate of Russian strikes timed around the summit seemed to signal a ground offensive on Idlib was nearing.
“If the Russians are going in it’s going to be the last stand,” said journalist Hussein. “Central Asians are very ideological – that’s why they’re there. Even the ones that did not join Daesh [ISIS] still have that background.”
That fight could continue even if Syrian troops make significant inroads.
“I’ve spoken to guys that talk about guerrilla warfare, the long game,” Hussein said, adding: “I don’t think they have any hope in returning.”
Should Assad and his powerful allies succeed in wresting back the province, the Turkic-speaking jihadis will likely seek shelter in Turkish-held regions of northern Syria, or in Turkey itself.
Turkey will seek to find a solution for its Turkic brethren without raising the ire of China, which recently signaled through its ambassador to Syria that its army was prepared to deepen counterterrorism cooperation with Assad, including against Chinese nationals.
“Ankara cannot provide a route for the [Turkistan Islamic Party] collectively. The only way forward is dissolving the party, allowing members to individually relocate,” Hage Ali said.
Conservative cities in Turkey such as Gaziantep, Tarsus and Konya will be likely retreats should the jihadis be pushed from the province entirely.
Fake IDs are easy to come by, and safe houses can be masked, even in densely populated districts. “I’ve come across safe houses in very, very busy residential areas. You go through and think it’s a residential area, and then it’s 27 fighters in bunkbeds,” Hussein said.
He pointed to the example of Konya as a “quiet, religiously conservative city with a history of ghazawat [military expeditions] – that is, its sons fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia” and now Syria. If Central Asian veterans remain discreet and do not attack their host country, they can hope to avoid a crackdown by the Turkish intelligence services.
“You get a lot of guys returning to a quiet city that doesn’t have a problem with devout men minding their own business,” Hussein said.
“The networks are institutionalized. They’re not going to disappear just because Idlib falls.”