According to state officials in China, proven links exist between Syria’s ongoing rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and separatist organizations in China’s northwestern frontier province of Xinjiang. The government alleges that since May of this year elements of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist group actively agitating for Xinjiang’s independence from Beijing, have been participating in anti-regime activities in Syria and making links with other international terror groups such as Al Qaeda. In addition to condemning the proliferation of insurrection groups and transnational terror, the Beijing government raised the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC, a paramilitary group that tackles/deters unrest in a few key cities of Xinjiang) up a few echelons to a deputy corps command, giving it a hotline to Beijing to facilitate speedy response. This is on top of the government’s ‘strike hard’ campaign launched earlier this year against separatist groups and their increasing presence on the internet.

Xinjiang is home to a large population of China’s ethnic minorities, many of them Muslim. In 2009, violence broke out between members of the restive Uighur minority and the majority Han communities, killing around 200. Ever since this episode, Beijing has been seen as especially jumpy over the status of its western frontier, something that the regime-toppling Arab Spring wave of unrest has exacerbated. This is a large factor in China’s decision to remain intransigent in the U.N. Security Council’s attempts to intervene in the Syrian conflict, as Beijing hopes to help another regime with legitimacy problems weather the storm while reducing the pressure at home in the process. However, the seemingly endless conflict in Syria now threatens to magnify the security threat even further than mere political protests as the unrest has become increasingly militarized and transnational. Should Syria become something of a jihadist melting pot in the mold of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the generation of new sophisticated transnational terror groups is a growing possibility, something the Chinese government is right to fear (if for the wrongheaded reason that it will make the subjugation of Xinjiang that much harder). This issue affects not just Chinese security, but the international community’s, as groups rooted in the Afghan insurgency against the U.S.S.R. (e.g. Al Qaeda) prove. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Syrian conflict will likely have security implications long after its conclusion and that reach far beyond its borders.



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-William Kyle