Russia presented 'evidence' today of Turkey's oil ties to ISIS -- but it has a crucial flaw

The Russian Ministry of Defence (MOD) presented “evidence” on Wednesday that ISIS had been smuggling oil onto Turkish soil to be purchased by Turkey’s president “and his family.”

The MOD highlighted three main routes the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) had allegedly been using to transport illicit oil into Turkey: via the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh border gates in Syria’s Idlib province, Hasakah in northeastern Syria, and Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan on the Iraqi-Turkish border.

As many analysts were quick to point out on Twitter, however, none of these routes are primarily controlled by the Islamic State. 

Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh are both dominated by rebel groups associated with the Free Syrian Army, and control over Hasakah province is divided between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the US-backed Kurdish/Arab coalition. Zakha, Iraq, meanwhile, lies within the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“If you look at the map, it looks like ISIS is smuggling oil through Kurdish-controlled territories in both Iraq and Syria to Turkey,” Kurdish expert Wladimir van Wilgenburg, of the Jamestown Foundation, told Business Insider on Wednesday.

“Relations between the YPG and Turkey aren’t so good, to say the least, so it seems implausible,” van Wilgenburg added. “It would be more logical if the Russians would suggest ISIS is smuggling oil to Syrian-Turkish controlled IS border towns like Jarabulus.”

Jarabulus is currently the only Syrian-border crossing under full ISIS control. The crossing in Tal Abyad on the Turkish-Syrian border was re-captured from ISIS by Kurdish forces in June.

In the above map, originally created by the skillful 
@LCarabinier, van Wilgenburg uses arrows to show how it would make more logistical sense for ISIS to smuggle oil to Turkey through ISIS-controlled areas — shaded grey  — than through Kurdish-held areas, shaded orange.

It is possible that ISIS could have smuggled oil via Sinjar before it was re-captured by US-backed Kurds last month, but that would only help the group smuggle oil to its Raqqa stronghold in Syria — not to Turkey.

In any case, the Russian MOD released additional satellite imagery that it said showed ISIS oil tankers crossing the border from Iraq and Syria into Turkey, adding that this was only the “first part” of its evidence of the Turkey-ISIS relationship and that more will be revealed next week.

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan denounced Russia’s accusations on Wednesday, calling them “slander” and vowing to resign if Russia could provide legitimate proof that Turkey had ever dealt with the Islamic State. 

Relations between the two nations have hit an all-time low following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane on last week. Russia has sanctioned Turkey over the incident, and Turkey has said it will cut its imports of Russian petroleum by 25% in 2016.

Significantly, the spat has also brought both countries’ alleged ties to ISIS back into focus.

Last Wednesday, the Treasury Department sanctioned Russian-Syrian businessman George Haswani for using his firm, Hesco Engineering and Construction Co., to purchase oil from the Islamic State on behalf of the Assad regime.

Two days later, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Turkey of  “playing a game where terrorists are allocated the role of secret allies,” adding that Russia was ready to block the Turkish-Syrian border to “eradicate terrorism on Syrian soil.”

It is unclear how such a blockage would be enforced, or whether it would involve stationing Russian ground troops at the border.

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