Playing on both sides of the divide
Despite all official efforts towards a consensus over Syria, certain irreconcilable strategic interests remain. NATO and Russia continue to differ on the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The latest incident surrounding a downed Russian plan has only widened those fault lines. Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Turkey of shooting down a Russian warplane to protect supplies of oil from the Islamic State group to Turkey.
“We have every reason to think that the decision to shoot down our plane was dictated by the desire to protect the oil supply lines to Turkish territory,” the Russian president said. “We have received additional information which unfortunately confirms that this oil, produced in areas controlled by IS and other terrorist organisations, is transported on an industrial scale to Turkey.”
However, it was not the first time that Putin has claimed that Turkey buys oil from IS. Turkmen rebels, on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, who call themselves the Syrian Liberation Army, have been protecting the routes on which oil tankers have been moving regularly from Syria to Turkey for the Western market. Such a smuggling enterprise is allegedly controlled by Bilal Erdogan, son of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. For the uninitiated, Turkey is a member of NATO, and therefore, a military ally of the United States.
Turkish businessmen have reportedly even struck lucrative deals with ISIS oil smugglers. These deals reportedly added an estimated $10 million per week to the terror group’s coffers. The links between ISIS and Turkish administration, however, grow further. Putin’s claims are further backed by a recent US Special Forces raid in eastern Syria, which was successful in claiming the life of Abu Sayyaf, a leading IS official responsible for the group’s illegal oil trade.
While going through Sayyaf’s compound, US soldiers found hard drives that established close links between IS leaders and certain Turkish officials. According to Martin Chulov, a reputed journalist, who covers the Middle East for British daily The Guardian, “Senior Turkish officials have openly stated that the Kurds – the main US ally in Syria – pose more of a threat than IS to Turkey’s national interests.”
Even among Western countries, which have recently forged an alliance against the IS, there are skeptics who see Turkey playing both sides of the street. There are serious suspicions that the shooting down of the plane had been planned. As soon as the Russian pilot and his navigator ejected from the jet in an inhospitable terrain, their parachutes were instantly targeted by machine guns. It is clear that Turkmen rebels on the other side of the border in Syria were clearly expecting the incident in their area.
Besides oil, Turkey has found other ways to assist IS. Turkey’s borders have been the primary thoroughfare for the entry of 15,000-20,000 foreign fighters, who have joined IS. Moreover, its military bases have used to distribute weapons and train rebel fighters against Assad, who have either surrendered or joined IS.
As recent intelligence reports from Washington indicate, the weapons provided to rebel fighters have made their way to IS. Suffice to say, Turkey’s commitment to facilitate the flow of militant fighters into Syria had found resonance among its western backers. What’s more unfortunate is that Turkish jets, under the cover American fighter planes, have in fact targeted Kurdish fighters (also known as the YPG), which has been the only effective ground force against IS.