By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Counterpunch.
On December 2, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Defense Anatoly Antonov made a strong statement about Turkish complicity with ISIS. The charge sheet is long and detailed. It mentions many aspects, but the most incendiary is the accusation about “ISIS oil.”
ISIS controls Iraqi oil fields near Mosul. They have been making millions of dollars each day by selling oil from these fields. How does ISIS get the oil from the fields in Mosul to the market?
What ISIS has done is to use the old networks that have smuggled oil from the Kurdish Regional Government without any consideration given to Baghdad’s sovereignty over that oil. This had been a point of contention for decades, since the Kurdish region began to exercise autonomous control of the north. Kurdish oil was sold to smugglers who would cart them in tankers across the border into Turkey. In Turkey the trucks would run the length of the country to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. From Ceyhan, which is a port run by the Turkish government, the oil is purchased by transporters whose ships go to Malta, where the oil is transshipped to destinations such as Ashdod (Israel). This has long been a bone of contention between the Iraqi government, the Kurdish Regional Government and the Turkish government. It was documented by Tolga Tanış in his book Potus ve Beyefendi (2015). Tanis accuses Berat Albayrak, son-in-law of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of involvement in this illegal scheme. ISIS has merely replaced the Kurdish Regional Government in the new arrangement.
How does ISIS do it? ISIS sells the oil to smugglers who cart it to Ceyhan. But now the story gets interesting. Who is involved inside Turkey with the oil? The Russians have accused the BMZ Group of being a major agent for the transport of the oil. It turns out that one of the owners of BMZ is Bilal Erdoğan, son of the president. BMZ Group has – according to the Financial Times – purchased two new tankers this last month. Its volume of oil has increased. Is this ISIS oil? What the Russians allege would need to be investigated further. In the UK parliament, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “We need to know which banks and countries are in on ISIS oil smuggling.” This is the most important question. It is being ignored.
Much of this is well-known in Turkey, where journalists have been bravely writing about the Turkish government’s role along the porous Turkish-Syrian border. That is why the government of Erdoğan has so ruthlessly gone after the media. The arrest of Cumhuriyet editor Can Dündar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül is only one part of this crackdown. Dündar and Gül had the temerity to publish pictures that showed Turkish resupplying of extremists in Syria. Erdoğan went after the New York Times’ Ceylan Yeginsu when she reported on ISIS recruitment centers in Turkey. There is zero tolerance for press freedom on these issues. If one names these names – Bilal Erdoğan, Berat Albayrak, Ahmet Çalık – there is danger of prosecution. Çalık holds the keys to the kingdom at the Cehyan refinery – through which, it is alleged, ISIS oil travels. Will there be an impartial investigation of this? Unlikely. Too much is at stake. Erdoğan has said that he would resign if any such link were proven. It is likely no such link will be demonstrated.
That the Russians have made these allegations will only increase tensions between Ankara and Moscow. Indeed, on December 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that retaliation for the downed jet has not yet come. The tempo of threats has risen.
Stunningly Ceyhan Port is a few hours drive from the Incirlik Air Base, from where the US jets have been hitting targets in Syria. It is literally under the noses of the US planes that the ISIS oil has been transported. For the fourteen months that the US has been hitting ISIS targets, it has avoided striking at the oil tankers. US officials say that they did not strike ISIS oil tankers for fear of “collateral damage.” In fact, when the US did hit the oil tankers last month, they did so after warning the drivers by leaflets. This was a very noble gesture, but also out of character. The US generally does not warn its targets. It only began to hit the oil tankers after Russian jets struck them. Did the US begin its strike on the tankers so as not to be shown up by the Russians? When I put this question to a US state department official, she demurred. She said that the US was merely building up intelligence on the tanker routes and it was now prepared to hit the convoys. That it came after the Russian bombings of the tankers, she said, is mere coincidence.
Western bombing of Syria is now going to intensify. The French have joined in with the Americans. The British will now begin its bombing raids, as the Germans will support the French. The history of aerial bombardment shows that guerrilla armies are not easily defeated from the air. The US blasted the Vietnamese forces from the sky and still lost the war. As the British found in World War II, German bombing only strengthened the will of the British people to resist. They have forgotten that lesson.
The Europeans want to solve the refugee crisis. They believe that their bombing will advance their interests. It is likely to increase the displacement in Syria. The Turkish government’s demand for a “buffer zone” is of interest to the Europeans. They believe it is for refugees. But it could just as well be to protect the tankers from the Russian bombing raids. It is precisely what makes Corbyn’s demand so important – to hold a through investigation of the ISIS oil pipeline. Such an inquiry must ask the following questions:
1 Who is carting the oil from Mosul to the Turkish border? Who owns those trucks?
2 Who is carting the oil from the Turkish border to Ceylan? Who owns those trucks?
3 How does ISIS oil go through Ceylan, a port owned by the Turkish government?
4 Who owns the ships that cart the ISIS oil out of Turkey and to ports afield?
5 What banks handle the transaction between the sale of ISIS oil and the foreign buyers? Should they also be implicated in the smuggling of ISIS oil?
An investigation along these lines is overdue. It is not enough to accept or dismiss the Russian accusations. These should be used as an opportunity to clarity the actual pipelines for ISIS funding. Bombing the Omar fields in Syria – as the UK has done today – might not be sufficient. It might dust over the evidence of much greater complicity in ISIS oil.
[A shorter version of this will appear this Sunday in BirGün]
Vijay Prashad, director of International Studies at Trinity College, is the editor of “Letters to Palestine” (Verso). He lives in Northampton.