Report: China, Russia worried about militants' return from Syria

Beijing and Moscow are concerned that citizens who left to fight with jihadi groups in Syria could stoke radicalization at home following their return.

al-monitor A view of burnt vehicles after the U.S.-backed forces said they had captured Islamic State's last shred of territory, in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Dec 2, 2019

Both China and Russia are concerned that thousands of citizens who left to fight with terror organizations in Syria could return home to stoke radicalization, a congressionally appointed panel said in a report.

The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s report indicates that Beijing in particular is worried that an influx of fighters returning home from the Syrian battlefield could sow insurgent activity along critical stretches of planned Chinese infrastructure investment.

The report said the prospect of radicalization among members of the Muslim Uighur minority in the Xinjiang region "is of particular concern to the Chinese government because the region is a crucial hub" for China's Belt and Road Initiative, which has used railway, port, and construction investments to woo Middle Eastern nations. The initiative has stoked concerns at the Pentagon about threats to American military technology.  

Chinese officials have claimed that up to 5,000 Uighurs are fighting in Syria, according to the report, but those figures have not been verified by American government agencies or independent experts, who indicate the actual number of foreign fighters may be lower.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also expressed fears that as many as 4,000 Russians and 5,000 Central Asians have left to fight for the Islamic State, which has continued to conduct insurgent attacks, including drive-by shootings in eastern Syria, even as the Pentagon has insisted that the militant group’s self-described territorial caliphate has been eliminated.

Those fears have pushed China and Russia to sign several deals to fight terror and repatriate foreign terror suspects, though it’s not clear the two nations have engaged in robust operations.

But the deals could still scuttle limited US hopes for a counterterror relationship in Syria, as the Pentagon has notified Moscow of multiple operations against al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) affiliates hiding in areas patrolled by Russian aircraft, including the October raid that took the life of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Defense Department officials believed the operations before the October raid, particularly June airstrikes against leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliated group, pointed to signs of hope for collaboration against terror in Syria. But former US officials who tried to work out a deal to secure humanitarian access in Aleppo province say Russia’s heavy-handed style of fighting terror is likely to be incompatible with the targeted strikes the United States has used to chip away at terror leaders.

“The Russian mode of [counterterrorism] is basically just to kill all of the bad guys,” said Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Barack Obama administration. 

Carpenter, now with the Penn-Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania, told Al-Monitor, “In the North Caucasus they’ve shown an interest in seeking retribution,” referring to Russia’s efforts to quell domestic terror and insurgency within its own borders. “Aside from being wrong, it’s a poor tactic for de-radicalizing a community.”

Yet in Beijing’s case, it’s not clear that Chinese fighters will be able to return home from Syria when the eight-year war reaches an end, as the Muslim minority faces extensive surveillance and scrutiny from authorities. Experts say the Uighurs who left to fight in Syria may be more likely to turn to Afghanistan as a base for attacks, given Beijing’s adversarial relationship with the group.

“It seems several hundred of the Uighurs who were fighting in Syria went back to Afghanistan,” Marlene Laruelle, the director of the George Washington University’s Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, told the congressionally appointed commission. “They cannot go back to China. Otherwise, they would be immediately arrested.”

The Donald Trump administration has kept a watchful eye on Afghanistan as a possible training ground for fighters who travel to Syria. The special US inspector general for the American war effort in the country noted this year that Iran has also trained troops in the war-torn country who are then sent to help the Bashar al-Assad regime’s military campaign in Syria.

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