According to multiple reports in Middle East regional sources, China plans to send elite military units to Syria to advise and assist the Syrian Army in an attempt to root out the country’s terrorist insurgency, especially Chinese Islamist foreign fighters who have shown up in increasing numbers in Syria’s north since the start of the conflict.

If confirmed this won’t be the first time China – one of the five veto-wielding powers of the UN Security Council – has sent assistance to the Assad government: according to previous reporting by Middle East EyeChina began quietly sending soldiers in an advisory capacity into Syria earlier this year to assist government forces in weapons systems, intelligence collection, logistics, and medicine. But this certainly marks a dramatic and more public escalation in terms of Chinese operations in the region as Beijing will reportedly send special forces to work closely with government troops, and likely in coordination with the Russians as well.

Sources told the Saudi Arabia based newspaper New Khaleej that the Chinese Ministry of Defense intends to send two units known as the “Tigers of Siberia” and the “Night Tigers” – both elite special operations units – to assist the Syrian government’s fight against the jihadist insurgency. The news follows a high level meeting last week in China between Syrian Presidential Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban and Chinese Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who praised Damascus’ efforts in fighting foreign militants from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM, also commonly called the Turkestan Islamic Party, or TIP). The Muslim separatist group was founded by ethnic Uighurs and is based in the Xinjiang province of northwest China.

As the US State Department’s own 2014 Country Report on Terrorism confirms, the rate of foreign terrorist entry into Syria over the past years has been unprecedented among any conflict in history: “The rate of foreign terrorist fighter travel to Syria – totaling more than 16,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 90 countries as of late December – exceeded the rate of foreign terrorist fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years.” According to multiple counter-terror studies as well as diplomatic sources in Syria, up to 5,000 Chinese Uighurs and their families are currently in Syria, mostly now settled in al-Qaeda controlled Idlib province.

The US State Department also considers the Uighur TIP a terrorist organizationwith the United States having formally designated the group all the way back in 2002. However, the US and China have long been at opposite ends of UN Security Council votes on Syria, with China consistently vetoing measures and resolutions which propose critical or punitive measures against Damascus.

Since jihadist forces overtook Idlib City in 2015, the TIP became one of the strongest foreign jihadist forces in the country’s northwest. The Asian radical Islamist groups are now supporting a military operation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) in the northern Hama countryside, according to various reports from Syrian opposition sources. This might have encouraged China to consider more direct and aggressive military action against the TIP in Syria before its fighters gain an opportunity to return to eastern Asia.

China has lately positioned itself as a major player in Syria’s future reconstruction. According to Reuters the Chinese FM recently promised that China will lead international reconstruction efforts, telling the Syrian delegation which visited Beijing last week, “China hopes the Syrian side can seize the opportunity, display flexibility, and promote dialogue and negotiation to achieve substantive results… The international community should emphasize and actively support Syria’s reconstruction. China will put forth its own effort for this.”

Russia, China, and Iran have positioned themselves to be the major players in Syria’s reconstruction once the country is cleansed of its jihadist insurgency, even while aggressive sanctions from the West continue to target Syrian government institutions.

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