By BASSEM MROUE AND GERRY SHIH
BEIRUT — Many don’t speak Arabic and their role in Syria is little known to the outside world, but the Chinese fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria are organized, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s northern regions.
Thousands of Chinese jihadis have come to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies. Some have joined the al-Qaida’s branch in the country previously known as Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the Islamic State group and a smaller number joined factions such as the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.
But the majority of Chinese jihadis are with the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, whose vast majority are Chinese Muslims, particularly those from the Turkic-speaking Uighur majority native to Xinjiang in China. Their growing role in Syria has resulted in increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies who fear those same jihadis could one day return home and cause trouble there.
The Turkistan Islamic Party is the other name for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that considers China’s Xinjiang to be East Turkistan.