The Uyghurs’ lifesaving escape route to Turkey is not a ratline Mr. Seymour Hersh

Children are among Uyghurs held at an immigration center in southern Thailand, March 14, 2014.

Pulitzer winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s latest article on the Syria tragedy, in which he alleges that Pentagon leaders, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dempsey, conducted a secret alliance with Assad and Putin to undermine Obama, sent shockwaves around the internet. Especially pro-Assad and Pro-Putin circles greatly enjoyed it.

However as Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, underlined on twitter, the article is inconsistent and flawed. He explains, “What this has in common with Osama bin Laden-conspiracy is over-complicated, convoluted plot and really implausible details. And brought to you by the same cast of totally-legit characters, like ‘A longtime consultant to America’s intelligence community.’”

Joshi also gives an example of implausible details. For instance, Hersh would have his readers believe that the U.S. saw Assad as credible on the fate of the Golan Heights in 2013, while he wasn’t able to control many major towns in Syria.

Online news website Vox also pointed out that the story had three main problems. First it described General Dempsey as a dissident against Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels. This is nonsense because Dempsey both publicly and privately voiced a desire to do more to arm Syrian rebels. Secondly, Hersh doesn’t provide any sort of proof backing his claims. Finally, the allegation that the Pentagon is conspiring against President Obama is fundamentally at odds with the reality as we know it, Vox said. The American military leadership only follows the commander-in-chief, who is the President of the United States, and there is no apparent precedent for a conspiracy of the sort suggested by Hersh.


Having said this, we see that there is a greater problem with this article relating to claims about the Uighur/Uyghur population. Uygur individuals have been fleeing forseveral decades from China to Turkey due to oppression that they experience from the Chinese state against their ethnic and religious identity in their homeland, Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) province. Turkey naturally provides shelter for this ethnically Turkic population since its Turkish citizenship law requires the state to do so.

But Hersh claims that Turkey created a “ratline” to bring Uyghur foreign fighters to Syria via Turkey, referencing a Syrian regime official. That is a fundamentally flawed allegation since a Syrian regime official would naturally support or propagate such claims. And there are many examples can simply debunk it.

In March 2014, the South China Morning Post reported that 200 people rescued by police from a human trafficking camp in southern Thailand were suspected to be Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang. There were at least 100 children, most of them toddlers or still breastfeeding, and a pregnant woman. Similar reports were published both in the Asian press and international media because those people were fleeing with their families from a brutal regime; Turkey, much as it has become for Syrians and Iraqis, was their only hope.

A Turkish academic says that in 2014 alone, 7,000 Uyghur families escaped China and arrived in Turkey after a highly dangerous journey, which can take up to 12 months, either through Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, or Vietnam.


The refugees’ anger towards the Chinese regime’s policies was reported on by theWestern press. One of them told Reuters that the regime didn’t allow them to live as Muslims. “You can’t pray. You can’t keep more than one Koran at home. You can’t teach Islam to your children. You can’t fast and you can’t go to Hajj. When you’re deprived of your whole identity, what’s the point?” said a refugee named Sumeyye, who fled to Turkey last October with her three children and lives in the basement of a working-class housing block in Istanbul.

“We need to live like humans, not like animals,” said Mohammed, 32, to the LA Times, adding that he was jailed for a month without reason and beaten. “I am a Muslim and I love the Koran. Let me live in freedom.”


Turkey openly welcomed these people as refugees, and overall public opinion even pressured the Turkish government to reeact more strongly against the Chinese authorities. Several reports indicate that hundreds of Uyghurs have fled to Turkey in 2015 as well. But one incident received international attention. In July 2015, Thailand sent back to China more than 100 ethnic Uighur refugees, who were detained a year ago in Southern Thailand, an action that drew harsh criticism from the U.N. refugee agency and human rights groups.


The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “shocked” and considered Thailand’s action “a flagrant violation of international law.”

That should not surprise anyone because the fate of “repatriated” Uyghurs is grim. Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, told Atlantic magazinethat it is very difficult to determine the whereabouts of repatriated refugees within China, which tends to obscure their status. “The Chinese government’s attitude is basically that the Uighurs are citizens, they’re home, and it’s nobody’s business but theirs.”

But those whom outside organizations have managed to track have faced imprisonment—or worse. According to Human Rights Watch, an Uighur repatriated from Pakistan in 2007 was executed following his return to China. HRW also said that China is conducting pervasive ethnic discrimination, severe religious repression, and increasing cultural suppression in the Uyghur homeland.


Uygur refugees have been fleeing China for several decades. New York-based Chinese TV, NTD TV said, “In the end of 2009, the Cambodian government sent 20 Uyghurs back to China on grounds of “illegal immigration.” In 2011, the Malaysian authorities sent 11 Uyghurs back to China; In 2012, Malaysia again sent 6 Uyghurs back to China. These incidents aroused strong dissatisfaction from the United States, the United Nations, and the Uyghur organizations from around the world.”

It is a fact that some Uyghurs went to Syria and joined ISIS, but the numbers provided by Hersh are an exaggeration, and they have not been confirmed by any independent organization.


Reuters reported in July that Uyghurs themselves acknowledge that some members of their community have crossed from Turkey to fight alongside Islamic State militants in Syria, but say this is a small minority.

“These militants lure them, saying they will help them train for the Uighur cause, they will give them weapons and they will support them against China,” Uyghur refugee Adil Abdulgaffar, 49, said in his apartment in Istanbul’s working-class Sefakoy district, next to a bookshelf filled with Muslim prayer books.

“I’ve known of people who have gone off to Syria from Turkey with hopes that these promises will come true. But I also know that they very much regret it and would like to come back,” he said. “Our brothers who have been battling for their existence for the past 50 to 60 years are longing for guns. They are also very naive, and open to being tricked.”

Yes, Mr. Hersh, the journey that you called “ratline” is actually a “life line” for hundreds of Uyghurs who are running for their lives. We doubt that you would change your opinion on these allegations, but the information we’ve provided in this article is more than sufficient to show how naïve, superficial, and misinformed your reporting on Turkey and the Uygurs is.