Propaganda about ISIS oil has become Moscow’s tactical weapon of choice in the struggle over Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 fighter jet. But, for now, with Turkey giving as good as it gets, the shots have not yet hit their mark. Whatever line the Kremlin adopts, the current prevailing view in the West appears to be that Ankara is part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, in the war against jihadists.
Since the November 24 incident near the Turkish-Syrian border, both Turkey and Russia have called it quits on their Turkish Stream gas pipeline; both have blocked each other’s Black Sea ships over technical difficulties; and, now, both claim the other deals in oil sold by the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group in Syria.
Neither side has yet presented hard evidence of its allegations. But in this information-war, it’s firing first that appears to be the objective.
As it expanded its operations in Syria to support Ankara’s declared enemy, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia got started early. “Since the G20 summit [on November 15-16 in the Turkish city of Antalya] there [are] continuous newspaper articles about Turkey’s deals with [the ISIS] terrorist organization,” observed political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Sah University. At the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that “those who help ISIS are among us, without naming Turkey and Saudi Arabia directly.”
But, now, the Kremlin does not hesitate to do so.
A December 2 PowerPoint presentation by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov showed satellite images of hundreds of trucks, supposedly delivering oil from fields controlled by the so-called Islamic State to the Turkish border. Iran, Russia’s ally in the attempt to preserve President al-Assad’s regime, now has announced that it will release evidence from “Iranian consultants” about Turkey’s alleged ISIS-oil dealings, too.
To reinforce its message, Moscow has attributed its economic embargo and limitations on travel to Turkey to security concerns.
But Ankara has some of those, too. The government on December 6 denounced as a “provocation” a Twitter photo that allegedly shows a man holding a surface-to-air missile on a Russian ship passing through the Bosphorus.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has promised evidence, and named his suspects for what he claimed is Russia’s own ISIS oil trade: Syrian-Russian businessman George Haswani and “a famous Russian chess player.” The government-run Daily Sabah has indicated that the chess player could be World Chess Federation President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Russian businessman who, like Haswani, faces US and European Union sanctions for alleged Syria-connected activities.
This weekend, two Russian state-owned news operations, TASS and Vesti.ru, published, respectively, Haswani’s denial of Erdoğan’s claims and a story about Ilyumzhinov’s lawsuit against US sanctions.
More rebuttals could be in store. Teasingly, on December 2, the Russian embassy in Ankara tweeted that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would give evidence against Turkey to the UN Security Council.
Yet, though Ankara denounces Russian allegations as part of a “Soviet propaganda machine,” tales about alleged ties between Turkey’s ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) have surfaced before. Along with Turkish opposition parties, the few remaining independent newspapers left in Turkey have frequently alleged government links to the illicit oil trade, but without providing details. The Cumhuriyet newspaper last year raised questions about the business affairs of President Erdoğan’s 34-year-old son, Bilal, whom the Kremlin has targeted as well.
Both the president and his son, reportedly now working on a doctorate from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, strongly deny the ISIS accusations.
With Turkey’s opposition still reeling from its defeat in the November parliamentary elections, few of the AKP’s critics are likely to echo Moscow’s accusations, predicted Suat Kınıklıoğlu, executive director of STRATIM, an Ankara-based think-tank.
Among mainstream Turkish media, reporting on such claims has become taboo. The silence follows the November 26 jailing of Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief, Erdem Gül on espionage charges for stories alleging Turkish arms transfers to jihadist groups in Syria. Social media is similarly cautious; particularly after a tweet comparing Erdoğan to the Lord of the Rings character Gollum prompted a criminal charge of insulting the president.
Rather, reasons Kınıklıoğlu, a former AKP member of the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee, “The impact [of Moscow’s claims] will be more felt in the international arena.”
“The perception that Ankara is involved in shady business is going to strengthen. There might be a component that Ankara does not want to upset Islamic State to [the] extent it starts targeting Turks in Turkey.”
None of Turkey’s Western allies has any desire to alienate Ankara now, however. On November 24, the day Turkey shot down the SU-24, the European Union established a 3-billion-euro ($3.26 billion) fund to help stem the flood of Syrian refugees, and Western leaders are queuing up to use Turkey’s bases against the so-called Islamic State.
US Secretary of State John Kerry maintains that President Erdoğan “is committed” to closing a 98-kilometer strip of the Turkish-Syrian border, earlier cited by US President Barack Obama, where both ISIS oil-shipments and fighters can pass through.
But the fact that Turkey, with an army estimated at over half a million personnel, cannot seal the border still could influence outside perceptions, political scientist Aktar contends. President Obama’s December 1 comment that he has had “repeated conversations” with Erdoğan on the topic has been interpreted by some that Western patience is running out.
“There are opposition politicians in Europe more and more accusing Ankara of collaborating with Islamic State and jihadist groups,” Aktar said. “Now the Russian government is openly saying this, it is not impossible other governments could now come forward [with their own concerns]. Pressure is building on Ankara.”
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul. Caucasus and Turkey News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.