Its Defense Ministry is considering sending two special forces units to fight terrorists in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, as some of them have Chinese nationality and would pose a high risk if they return home. An estimated 5,000 Chinese militants are fighting alongside various insurgent groups in Syria. Moreover, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syrian infrastructure.
Beijing does not want Syria to become a base for Uighurs to launch terrorist attacks against Chinese citizens and interests overseas. The Aug. 30 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, which was planned by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Syria and financed by Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), was cited as justification for the Chinese to be in Syria.
Some analysts say Chinese and Russian involvement in Syria is similar to that of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001, who wanted to deny Al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against US targets.
The delayed involvement of the Chinese army indicates that China’s main objective in Syria is economic. Beijing recently received Syrian government representatives who asked for further Chinese economic support, resulting in the announcement of more than $6 billion in direct investments.
After the demise of Daesh, China will be investing heavily in Syria. Politically, Beijing will try to coordinate with all concerned parties, including Moscow and Washington. Last week, there were talks between Beijing and Damascus on countering ETIM terrorists in Eastern Ghouta. ETIM is said to have committed more than 200 terrorist acts in China in the last few years.
Chinese and Russian involvement in Syria is similar to that of the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001, who wanted to deny Al-Qaeda a base to launch attacks against US targets.
China relies on Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy sources, and thus seeks stability in those regions. Meanwhile, Xinjiang in northwest China is restless and susceptible to violence, which Beijing blames on radical separatist movements such as ETIM. More than 10,000 Chinese police marched through Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in February in a show of force.
According to sources, Chinese military advisers are already in Syria, paving the way for troops. And combat drones have been shipped from China to Syria for counter-terrorism operations.
The extent of China’s involvement hinges on the conduct of the US, which is wary of a greater Chinese role in the Middle East and Central Asia that could affect American strategic interests. The coming few weeks will witness many meetings between Chinese and American military and security officials.
– Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme