A buffer zone for Erdogan’s Turkic settlements in Syria?
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was in Brussels 4-6 October pushing EU for a Syrian buffer zone for humanitarian purposes, and as air cover for its “moderate rebels” to enter Syria to fight ISIS/Assad regime.
In view of the sudden influx of refugees to EU, Erdogan said, “The root cause of the refugee crisis today is the war that has been taking place in Syria and the state-sponsored terror actions which have been carried out by Assad himself,” and raised the issue of “a safe zone that would be protected from terrorism” and “a no-fly zone.”
While it is true Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are each hosting over one million refugees, various sources point to additional reasons why Turkey may be seeking a no-fly zone.
Create salafist statelet in Syria for Qatar-Turkey pipeline to EU
A 2014 Armed Forces Journal article discussed how the Syrian civil war is driven by Qatar/Turkey/Saudi interests in running a Qatar gas pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and unto the lucrative EU market. The pipeline would run through Aleppo region that is the proposed no-fly zone.
With Assad removed and replaced by a friendly salafist regime in Syria, the triad can thus tap into the EU market in face of current tensions with Russia over Ukraine, and continue to fund their war chest to support Islamist movements in the region.
Indeed, it seems unlikely the autocratic regimes of Doha, Riyadh and an increasingly authoritarian Ankara are fighting for a democratic future in Syria, especially given the large number of foreign fighters and Islamic extremist groups in their Army of Conquest that is now headquartered in Idlib province. These “moderate rebels” are in fact conducting ethno-religious cleansing by killing or expelling Christians, Druze, and other minorities while establishing shaira law.
This corroborates the 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report of their desire to carve out a salafist statelet in Syria east of Assad-controlled territory in order to put pressure on his regime (In 2012 it was further east, but now that Assad has lost much territory it is just east of Latakia).
With its base in the Idlib governorate, the rebel coalition now has a direct supply line open from Turkey’s Hatay Province next to Idlib, further expanded by the new proposed Aleppo buffer zone. Hatay province, located on the coast north of Latakia, was originally part of Syria according to the French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon, but Turkey showed interest in the area with its large Turkish-speaking community and in 1936 pushed for Hatay’s “reunification” with Turkey. In 1939 Turkey annexed Hatay.
Counter-terror expert Jacob Zenn assessed that the “rebels may have enough resources to establish a de-facto state in northwestern Syria led by JN [Jabhat-al-Nusra] and supported by several Central Asian militas.” The rebel coalition includes Chinese Uyghur-led terror group, Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), Uzbek-led Imam Bukhari Jamaat and Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, as well as Chechen militias in the mix.
Recent reports now reveal Turkey is populating this de facto statelet next to Hatay with Turkic settlements, especially Chinese Uyghur turks.
Turkization of northwest Syria
Over the past years, China and Turkey have been disputing over illegal immigration of Uyghurs via a passport scandal, and Chinese officials finally came out publicly in July that Turkey was recruiting Chinese Uyghurs and selling them as “cannon fodders” for Syrian jihad.
An August Global Times article revealed that since the end of 2014, 1,000 Uyghurs have been smuggled into Turkey and are housed in government buildings in Kayseri guarded by local police. It also mentioned in a 2011 interview with Chinese media, Turkish ambassador to China Murat Salim Esenli said the Uyghur population in Turkey was around 300,000, while the Chinese authorities usually put the number at 100,000.
However a 2009 article by Matti Nonojen and Igor Torbakov from Finnish Institute of International Affairs, already cited Bulent Arinc, co-founder of AKP and then deputy prime minister, saying “we have profound historical ties to our brothers in the uighur region” including 300,000 strong Uighur community in Turkey. Thus with the recent surge of Uyghur immigration over the past years, that number may now be slightly higher.
Back in February when the passport scandal gained media attention, Peter Lee of Asia Times surmised the possibility of Erdogan using Uyghur manpower as his potential power projection asset in Syria. While it is acknowledged Turkey is hospitable to Uyghur refugees and indulges on its notion as protector of the Turkish-speaking world, China would take issue with Turkey setting up a pipeline to encourage Uyghur emigration for Syrian and eventual Chinese jihad.
Training Uyghur ‘rebels’ for Syrian and Chinese jihad?
This threat is further solidified when in September, MEMRI TV translated a video of how the Chinese militant group TIP is setting up training camps with their families in Idlib, along with a new colony of 3,500 Uyghurs near the camps. TIP itself released photos of its camps in Idlib as well as camps to train jihadists “cubs”.
The video went on to say that “thousands of Chinese turkistanis” fleeing China were resettled in the area especially in the village of Zanbaq that is changing Syrian demography, with 20,000 more being trained by Turkish intelligence MIT in Istanbul as “rebels” to eventually fight Assad in Syria and continue onto China.
In light of these developments, it seems Erdogan may view the increasingly Turkic character of Idlib and Aleppo as another Hatay, with view of “pulling a Crimea” for eventual annexation.
While 20,000 Uyghur turks being trained as rebels is hopefully an exaggerated number, it is true TIP is part of Turkey’s Army of Conquest. With ramped up terrorist attacks in China the past two years, and its evolution similar to ISIS from a terrorist organization to a professional army with Turkey’s training, if Erdogan continues this policy he will likely provoke China to enter the Syrian war to neutralize this threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of “The New Silk Road: China’s Energy Strategy in the Greater Middle East” (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy), and a former director for China policy at the U.S. Department of Defense.
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