WASHINGTON - Analysts are warning that the jihadi group Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in northwestern Syria could pose a danger to Syria's volatile Idlib province, where efforts continue to keep a fragile Turkey-Russia-brokered cease-fire between Syrian regime forces and the various rebel groups.
The TIP declared an Islamic emirate in Idlib in late November and has largely remained off the radar of authorities and the media thanks to its low profile. Founded in 2008 in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, the TIP has been one of the major extremist groups in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in the country in 2011.
The TIP is primarily made up of Uighur Muslims from China, but in recent years it also has included other jihadi fighters within its ranks.
"Now they recruit non-Uighurs and some Syrians as well," said Aymenn Jawad al Tamimi, a Syrian researcher at the Middle East Forum, a U.S.-based think tank. "They featured a video recently that showed some Europeans in their ranks. So they have certainly expanded their recruitment base beyond the Uighur refugees who were in Turkey."
At the peak of the Syrian conflict in 2013, there reportedly were an estimated 3,000 TIP fighters across the country, mainly in Idlib, Aleppo, Hama, Homs and the northern part of Latakia province. Their numbers, however, have significantly declined because of major military advances by the Syrian regime troops, backed by Russia and Iran.
WATCH: What Is the Turkistan Islamic Party?
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Sadradeen Kinno, a Syrian researcher who closely follows Islamist groups in the country, told VOA the reason TIP fighters "came to Syria in the first place was that they adhere to the jihadi ideology. For jihadi groups, Syria, or the broader Levant, is a holy land for global jihad. In their doctrines, the doomsday final battle takes place in Dabiq [a town in northern Syria]."
Kinno said the TIP has been largely inspired ideologically by jihadi networks like al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The group has claimed responsibility for several attacks against Syrian troops and their allies, including a 2016 attack in Khan Touman in Idlib, where dozens of Iranian soldiers and militiamen were killed.
Chinese Special Forces
In late 2017, Syrian regime officials said they had discussed with Chinese officials the possibility of deploying Chinese Special Forces to Syria to counter the threat of the TIP. China, however, has not publicly discussed such a deployment. Beijing considers TIP a terrorist organization.
In August of this year, a pro-regime Syrian newspaper, al Watan, reported that China's ambassador to Damascus had expressed Beijing's readiness to join the Idlib operation to back the Syrian regime against rebels, one month before Russia and Turkey agreed on a cease-fire there.
By targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the TIP fighters "think they're fighting China, because China is an ally of Assad," researcher al Tamimi said.
Along with Russia, China repeatedly has vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at condemning Syrian government actions against civilians in Syria.
Syyed Mohammad Hadi, a Tehran-based analyst, says there are two explanations for why Chinese troops might be involved in Syria.
"From a security viewpoint, China will pursue its objectives of targeting trained and experienced fighters in Syria and preventing them from potentially transferring those fighting skills to their counterparts in the west of China," Hadi told VOA.
"Beijing also sees itself as one of the main players in Syria's reconstruction when the war is over," he added. "So having a military presence will strength its stance in Syria and guarantee any future investments there."
With Syria's military continuing to make advances, analysts assert that the fate of Uighur fighters in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria depends on whether Turkey can crack down on such jihadi groups.
"If that doesn't happen in the long run, then eventually [TIP fighters] could begin an offensive in Idlib," al Tamimi said. "These groups won't desist. They reject all diplomatic approaches, so I think they will continue their jihad in one way or another."