By Abdullah Bozkurt
April 13, 2015
Turkey's relations with China that were upgraded to a strategic partnership in 2010 were dealt a significant blow a year later when increasingly assertive political Islamists in the Turkish government started playing a game of proxies with the Uyghurs of Chinese nationality as part of their short-sighted vision of a regime change in their southern neighbour, Syria.
This sudden turn of policy with respect to China's Xinjiang region, shaped at the highest level of the government with chief Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan setting the bar, has been a sore point in Turkish-Sino ties ever since. The Turkish government has not only turned a blind eye to the transfer of a large number of Uyghurs to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other al-Qaeda-affiliated and splinter groups but evidence also suggests Ankara has in fact encouraged the operation of such militant recruitment network as well.
Chinese government officials, including top intelligence bureaucrats, have traveled to Turkey in recent years to raise this trafficking network issue with their counterparts in Ankara. Yet they were paid lip service and as a result Beijing has grown increasingly frustrated, unsettling what had been promising bilateral ties between the two countries. In line with traditional Chinese diplomacy, officials in Beijing have by and large been restrained in their public remarks lest they raise the matter to a regional and global one, but are lobbying intensely with neighbours like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia to cut off the illegal traffic destined for Syria.
The Meydan daily, a recently launched newspaper, broke a major news story last week exposing how a Chinese national of Uyghur background identified as Nurali T. set up a passport forgery center in İstanbul's Zeytinburnu district to provide altered Turkish passports to those who want to join ISIL. This crook came to Turkey in 2011 and set up a business of forging passport with the full knowledge of the Turkish authorities. He was detained by the police six months ago while carrying 30 passports on him yet was immediately released, suggesting that he has a political cover that allows him to operate.
Those Uyghurs who want to join ISIL pay an upfront fee of $200 in exchange for a forged Turkish passport, setting on a voyage to Thailand and Cambodia through illegal means. From there, they make it to Malaysia, which has a visa-free travel regime with Turkey. After flying to İstanbul, where they stay overnight in a safe house, smugglers take the Uyghurs to the Syrian border to join ISIL. Whistleblower A.G., an aide of Nurali T., told the investigators from the Meydan daily that they have produced some 100,000 altered Turkish passports so far, half of them going to China. Nurali has reportedly made millions of dollars from this business.
Despite the fact that Turkish immigration and customs officials have spotted the forged passports carried by incoming passengers of Uyghur background and have seized their travel documents, they let them enter the country from the backdoor in line with the government policy on ethnic Uyghurs. The fact that so many Uyghur Turks were caught with Turkish passports in countries like China, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia corroborates Meydan's investigative story. The Turkish military has reported on several occasions that it has detained dozens of Chinese nationals while they were attempting to make it to Syria.
This ISIL business has also complicated the humanitarian plight ethnic Uyghurs have been experiencing at the hands of Chinese authorities because it weakens their legitimate cases of persecution and discrimination. Turkey's Islamists have done quite a disservice to Uyghurs by allowing this ISIL network to operate under their noses. The Islamists have also squandered the goodwill approach by Beijing, which wanted to work with Turkey in improving the conditions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province with significant funds earmarked for the development of that critical province and a standing invitation for Turkish companies to invest and operate in free zones in the autonomous province.
How rapidly Turkey slid down the path of religious zealotry in shaping its foreign policy is best illustrated by the past experience of Turkey with Uyghurs. Let's recall that the Turkish government in 2005 informed the US government that it would not accept the repatriation of 15 Chinese nationals of Uyghur ethnicity who were detained at Guantanamo after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the US. When Washington approached Ankara for the resettlement of these detainees to Turkey, Ankara balked at the idea in order to not invite the China's wrath. That is quite a contrast to what is happening now, with the Islamists effectively hijacking the power in the Turkish government and starting to control all levers of power.
In recent years, Erdoğan and his team of bellicose and religious fanatics have plundered the hard-earned credit and built-up good will with Turkey's allies and partners, including China, a country that decided to work with predominantly Muslim Turkey in order to improve its image in the Muslim world and in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), especially in the aftermath of the violent 2009 ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and Hans in Xinjiang. Beijing not only hosted Turkey's political and religious leaders in official visits to the province but also invited journalists, academics and businesspeople from Turkey and other Muslim nations to provide them with an opportunity to observe conditions on the ground. Yet political Islamists in Turkey have adopted a short-sighted foreign policy populism that seeks to mobilize quite a narrow Islamist constituency at home that comprises 5 percent at most during election campaigns.
Whipping up religious emotions on the streets and injecting an excessive influence of populism in the decision-making process of Turkish foreign policy is also part of a carefully orchestrated political campaign by Erdoğan and his associates in their sinister attempts to hush-up corruption in billions of dollars that were hoarded by Islamists. The case of Uyghurs is nothing but a smokescreen for them to distract the Turkish public while they have been lining their pockets and amassing huge wealth on the backs of oppressed people.
Just like Erdoğan and his Islamist brethren have done in Libya by recruiting militants to join ISIL and other fanatic groups fighting a dirty war in Syria, they have exploited the plight of ethnic Uyghurs for their misdirected cause. Just as government whistleblower Fuat Avni revealed on Sunday how Erdoğan seized the wealth of late Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi through his surviving daughter, perhaps the case of the Uyghurs is also nothing but a means to raise more money from Gulf patrons who have been spending cash to support the opposition groups in Syria. Avni said intel chief Hakan Fidan and chief adviser to Erdoğan Mücahit Aslan know all about the money deals Erdoğan has been taking as a commission from foreign funds that have been financing proxy wars in Syria.