The Syrian Arab Army has thwarted a major attempted advance by militants from the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) terror group, which made two attempts to gain ground with major assaults in the country’s northwestern Idlib province. Deputy chief of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Opposing Parties in Syria, Rear Admiral Oleg Gurinov, stated regarding the clashes: “In Idlib province, militants of the Turkistan Islamic Party terrorist group made two attempts near Al-Dana and Jubas to break into the area controlled by government forces. A Syrian soldier was killed and another was wounded while repelling the militants’ attack.” Idlib remains under the control of multiple terror groups of which the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front and the TIP are considered the most powerful. The TIP is comprised primarily of Turkic militants from the Chinese Uighur ethnic minority, which have for decades with extensive support from the Turkish state waged a campaign to expel other ethnicities from China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang and establish a jihadist state similar to that seen in northeast Syria today. The militants have been funnelled from Afghanistan and China to Syria through Turkey for over a decade with the support and funding of Turkish intelligence services, which have since 2011 played a leading role in efforts to overthrow the Syrian government.
TIP militants have notably repeatedly stated that they intend to use their base of operations in Syria, where they have considerable access to Turkish resources, armaments and protection, to renew their military campaign against China. As one jihadist in Syria informed the Associated Press in 2017: “We didn’t care how the fighting went or who [Syrian President] Assad was. We just wanted to learn how to use the weapons and then go back to China.” The jihadists have proven highly effective in combat using drones, car bombs and child soldiers, with their numbers in northeastern Syria estimated at over 5000. In November they notably planned an assault from bases in Idlib targeting Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base in western Syria, which serves as Russia’s primarily military facility in the region and was recently expanded to host Tu-22M3 strategic bombers and MiG-31K strike fighters armed with hypersonic weapons. Disabling the facility even temporarily would have been a major victory not only for the jihadists, but also for their sponsor Turkey as well as Ankara’s NATO allies. Syrian and Russian effort to reclaim Idlib and neutralise the terrorist presence were thwarted in early 2020 by a massive Turkish intervention including shooting down Syrian aircraft deep within the country’s borders, allowing it to remain a staging ground for jihadist attacks into the rest of Syrian territory. U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, Brett H. McGurk, accordingly highlighted that “Idlib Province is the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” and as a hub of TIP operations it remains a major threat to Syria, Russia and potentially to China.