The Brussels bombings have accelerated US efforts to close off the last remaining Islamic State (IS) route out of Syria through Turkey, which officials suspect was the main thoroughfare for militants who carried out deadly attacks in Belgium and France.
On March 23, the day US State Secretary John Kerry arrived to Russia, top US diplomats pressed Turkey to embrace a proposal to rely on American-backed Kurdish fighters to shut down the highway, which the militant group use to send dozens of attackers across Europe. This is a very important news story.
«After our Aerospace Forces initiated the operation to terminate the illegal traffic, particularly of oil and oil products, from Syria… to Turkey, this traffic has decreased substantially», Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during his recent meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who visited Moscow on the same day (March 23) to discuss Syria and other issues with Russian leaders.
«We insist on compliance with UN Security Council resolutions demanding to stop trade with the IS and other terrorists just as resolutions demanding an end to the flow of foreign terrorists, gunmen via Turkish territory to Syria», Lavrov added. «In general, although this flow has not run dry altogether, it has decreased considerably», the Minister noted. «Nevertheless, it is still there. The sector of the border between two Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria is actively used», he said.
The Russian top diplomat stressed that when the Kurds were trying to win back territory from the Islamic State group, «artillery bombardments of Kurdish positions were conducted from the Turkish side thus hampering their fight against this terrorist group».
The next day (March 24), Igor Konashenkov, Russia’s Defense Ministry spokesman, said the Russian military had received new documents confirming cooperation of the Turkish authorities with the Islamic State militants.
Last December the Russian military presented evidence to corroborate the fact that Turkey is the main consumer of oil smuggled by Islamic State from Syria and Iraq, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family were involved in the criminal business.
The Ministry’s evidence is confirmed by the documentary report on the results of investigation conducted by Russia Today (RT). It was made public on March 24.
The RT website published an eight-minute excerpt from the documentary. The full version, which contains «unique footage from the Syrian cities of Al-Shadadi, Romulan, al-Qamishli and tel Abyad freed from Islamic state, interviews with locals who worked on the refining of crude oil for IS, and with captured terrorists» will be aired in April this year.
The report says, Turkey benefits from the Islamic State because the terrorist group provides it with cheap oil and is fighting both Syria’s government and the Syrian Kurds. This is an opinion shared by both the Kurds and their mortal enemies from the jihadist organization. The IS documents obtained by RT may provide additional evidence revealing the dirty game being played by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Syria. Another set of documents was found at the IS Tell Abyad checkpoint. Among many other things (such as vehicle numbers and the weight of transported materials), the documents listed the names of passengers who had reportedly travelled to Mosul, Raqqa, Istanbul, and Ankara.
The illegal ties between Turkey and Islamic State have become an open secret since a long time ago.
In late 2015, David L. Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights, Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, published a report on the results of his investigation to prove Turkey and the IS were involved in illegal business.
Last December Norwegian daily Klassekampen leaked details of the report, which was put together by Rystad Energy, an independent oil and gas consulting firm, at the request of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry.
«Large amounts of oil have been smuggled across the border to Turkey from IS-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq», Klassekampen cited the report as saying. «[The] oil is sent by tankers via smuggling routes across the border [and] is sold at greatly reduced prices, from $25 to $45 a barrel».
The crude was reportedly sold on the black market at greatly reduced prices ($13-14), while the Brent benchmark was trading at $35-$50 per barrel. To compile the report, which is dated from July, Rystad Energy used its own database as well as sources in the region. «Exports happen in a well-established black market via Turkey», the paper concluded. «Many of the smugglers and corrupt border guards, who helped Saddam Hussein avoid international sanctions, are now helping IS export oil and import cash».
Dmitry Evstafiev, an expert of Russian PIR-Center, says, the IS has lost much of the revenue (from 200 thousand to 60 thousand barrels daily) as it was ceding big chunks of Syria’s territory.
According to the expert’s estimates, 60 thousand is the amount it can produce in the northern part of Iraq still under its control.
With the IS losing ground, the oil from Syria and Iraq can be exported through Turkey by other non-state actors. The overall amount of smuggled oil from Syria and Iraq (350-400 thousand barrels a day) is enough to influence world markets.
It should be noted that it is easy to identify where exactly the oil originates from. Europeans don’t mind buying smuggled oil. They have not raised the issue with Turkey – the country that controls the illegal oil flows.
Kurdish militia and US Special Forces on the ground can deprive Islamic State fighters of the logistical route that has been used by the group to bring in supplies and foreign recruits. This idea has been floated for some time.
According to the Military Times, for now, the US has agreed not to support Syrian Kurdish operations west of the Euphrates River.
However, if Turkey fails to seal off its side of the border, the US could move to help the Syrian Kurdish forces try to block IS formations in that zone.
The powerful Syrian Kurdish militia and its local allies have already drawn up plans for a major attack to seize the final stretch of the Syrian-Turkish border held by Islamic State fighters.
The idea has been supported by Russia. The Russian Foreign Minister believes that «With Kurdish militia and US Special Forces on the ground, there is a realistic way to shut off the illegal flow of oil from Syria to Turkey».
Sealing the Syrian border with Turkey is the issue that brings Russia and the US together in the spirit of fruitful cooperation both countries enjoy in some areas of the bilateral relationship. That’s what US State Secretary John Kerry emphasized in his remarks on the results of his visit to Russia (March 23-24).
Both parties face the same obstacle on the way to cope with the problem: Turkey. The issue is too acute to be swept under the rug. This is the time for hard choices to be made by the Turkish government.