Ever since Russia began its air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30, the obscure northern town of Jisr Al-Shughur, near Aleppo has been high on its list of targets. Few people outside the Middle East have even heard of this town of 50,000 people. So why has Russia given it such high priority?
There are three reasons:
1. It is controlled by Syrian rebel groups, mainly the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, and is thus a direct threat to Latakia, the coastal city that is the hub of Russia’s main military enclave in Syria, including the air bases from which it launches its air strikes.
2. Its location. The rebels occupying Jisr al-Shughur also threatens the population centers and strongholds of President Bashar Assad’s minority sect, the Alawites, namely the cities of Latakia and Tartus and the Alawite mountain range that runs parallel to the coastal plain. About two million Alawites live in Syria.
3. Its strong Uyghur presence. Jisr Al-Shughur is also home to thousands of people from Chinese Turkestan, mostly Uyghurs. They have not only joined the Al-Nusra Front, but also the Islamic State – ISIS.
This aspect of the Russian strategy is practically unknown in the West.
The jihadist Uyghurs of Jisr Al-Shughur
Ever since Moscow started conducting air strikes in Syria, the US as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have accused Russia of singling out moderate opposition groups backed by the West. This claim is partially correct. The Uyghurs in Jisr Al-Shughur have joined the Al-Nusra Front, but some too have sworn allegiance to ISIS.
Before analyzing the Uyghur’s singular position in Syria’s civil war, it is necessary to understand how they came to Syria in the first place.
In recent years, a large number of families from Chinese Turkestan settled in the Jisr Al-Shughur area, the largest concentration moving into the village of Zanbaq. There were four driving forces behind this migration:
China, which persecutes the Uyghur population of its western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and is bent on purging radical Muslim elements, in particular.
Uzbekistan, which has become the first stop for radical Muslims in flight from China. They join the 100,000 Uyghurs already living there.
Uzbekistan’s NSS secret service in collusion with Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence agency. They have been pushing Uyghurs into Turkey to distance them from Central Asia. The two spy agencies also recruit double agents and informers in this community for planting inside extremist Muslim groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.
Turkey promotes Uyghur Syrian settlement for annexation
MIT – Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization, under its director Hakan Fidan, who is a close confidant of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
MIT is under orders to revise the demographic balance in northeastern Syria by encouraging the settlement of ethnic Sunni Turks in order to pave the way for Ankara to eventually annex selected areas. These Uyghurs are being sent to the towns and villages abandoned by four million Syrians, half of whom have taken refuge in Turkey.
Among the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees swarming into Europe from Turkey, the furor they have created misses two particular streams of migrants or asks about Ankara’s underlying intentions.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s sources, Erdogan has issued instructions for two million Syrians in Turkish refugee camps, including Shiites, to be allowed to cross the land and sea routes to Greece and Eastern Europe on their way to Central Europe. The second stream is moving in the opposite direction. It consists of whole families of jihadist Chinese Uyghurs who are being allowed to cross from Turkey into Syria and repopulate select areas earmarked by Ankara for its future land grab.
Ten times more Uyghur jihadists in Syria than Chechens
In all, there are about 55,000 Uyghurs in Syria, although some Middle Eastern sources claim that the number is higher, and is actually between 60,000 and 70,000. Our intelligence sources have identified three main Uyghur population settlements in Syria:
- Jisr Al-Shughur, with 15,000 Uyghurs.
- Raqqa Province – the seat of ISIS headquarters in Syria – where entire towns and villages are dominated by an estimated 20,000 Uyghurs.
- The area around the oil fields of Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria, where another 20,000 Uyghurs live. ISIS has hired these Chinese migrants to guard its primary source of revenue, the captured oil fields of Syria, which yield an estimated three to four million dollars a day.
One primary objective of Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war is to eliminate the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 fighters from Chechnya and countries in the Caucasus region, who have joined the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS in Syria. Uyghur jihadis fighting in Syria outnumber Chechens by 10 to one. Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want to see Chechen terrorists setting foot in Russia again, his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping wants to make sure that Uyghur jihadis never return from the Syrian battlefields. That is why Xi dispatched Chinese naval and air force units to the Syrian theater.