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Russia, Turkey and the rise of the Islamic State

The reality is that while Turkish policy has, by commission and omission, made the Islamic State stronger, Russia's policy was far more cynical

Turkey concluded its biggest investigation to date into Islamic State (IS) operatives on its territory on Friday, and blacklisted 67 people. This provides a good moment to review what Turkey’s role has been in the rise of IS, especially amid the escalating accusations from Russia that Turkey is significantly responsible for financing IS. The reality is that while Turkish policy has, by commission and omission, made IS stronger than it would otherwise have been, so has Russia’s policy - and Russia’s policy is far more cynical than Turkey’s, deliberately intended to empower extremists to discredit the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad.

Turkey’s focus on bringing down Assad and Ankara’s fear of Kurdish autonomy led it into these policies, and now, having seemingly found the will to act to uproot IS’s infrastructure on Turkish territory, there is the problem of actually doing so, when IS can (and has) struck inside Turkey. The concerns about these external funding mechanisms for IS, while doubtless important, obscure the larger problem: IS’s revenue is overwhelmingly drawn from the areas it controls and only removing those areas of control can deny IS its funds.

Turkey shot down a Russian jet on 24 November, the first time since 1952 a NATO member had brought down a Russian military aircraft. Ankara claimed that its airspace had been violated and that numerous requests to withdraw were ignored. The Russian plane landed in northern Syria: one pilot, Oleg Peshkov, was killed in the descent by the Turkoman rebels of Alwiya al-Ashar (The Tenth Brigade) and one, Konstantin Murakhtin, was later rescued. In the wake of this, Moscow took retribution with economic sanctions against Turkey, including limiting tourism and banning charter flights to Turkey and also trade in certain foodstuffs.

Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin, then raised the stakes on 30 November by accusing Turkey of perpetrating the shoot-down in order to protect IS, with which the Turkish government has commercial interests, notably oil but also weapons. Moscow subsequently accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of being a personal profiteer from the criminal trade in oil with IS. The reality is quite otherwise, of course. As David Butter of Chatham House put it, given Turkey’s reliance on Russia for energy, “if oil was a consideration for the Turkish authorities … it would have had good reason to hold fire.”

Russia attempted to buttress its claims of an IS-Ankara oil trade by having its Ministry of Defence publish a map, among other “evidence,” purporting to show the three border crossings through which this trade takes place.

The problem is that not a single one of the border crossings is controlled by IS. Bab al-Hawa in Idlib is controlled by rebels at war with IS; Hasaka is controlled by a mix of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that Turkey is bombing inside Syria and the Assad regime; and Zakho is in Iraqi Kurdistan, where IS has been unable to penetrate. After forces led by the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, pushed IS out of Tal Abyad in June, the only border crossing left solely to IS is Jarabulus.

Worse, from Russia’s perspective, Moscow’s accusations against Turkey were not only untrue but had the feel of projection. IS sells nearly half of its oil to Russia’s client, the Assad regime, through Russian businessmen, and Russian weapons bound for the regime are a “top source” of IS weaponry.

Russia has also helped the Assad regime in its efforts to strengthen extremist forces to overpower the nationalist rebels, including by sending IS fighters from the Caucasus to the Fertile Crescent and most recently by preventing US air strikes against IS in northern Aleppo while bombing the rebels fighting against IS, essentially providing IS with air cover.

That said, it is true that Turkey has pursued policies that have strengthened IS, driven primarily by the desire to see Assad overthrown - and finding that the United States was effectively on the other side, Turkey had to go it alone. From 2011 until shortly after IS stormed into Mosul in mid-2014, Turkey maintained effectively an open border with Syria. Anecdotal reports abounded of visiblly foreign jihadi-Salafists heading for IS-held areas of Syria via Turkey being waved through customs.

There was a Turkish crackdown against IS later in 2014, with border crossings closed and some vetting taking place of who was crossing between Syria and Turkey; some would-be IS holy warriors were even arrested. Turkey, however, still has not closed down a 60-mile stretch of its 565-mile border with Syria that is held by IS.

And the accusation that IS is - or at least, was - trading oil in Turkey is undoubtedly true. In October 2014, David Cohen, the US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, gave a speech in which he said: "According to our information, as of last month, ISIL [IS] was selling oil at substantially discounted prices to a variety of middlemen, including some from Turkey, who then transported the oil to be resold.

"It also appears that some of the oil emanating from territory where ISIL operates has been sold to Kurds in Iraq, and then resold into Turkey. And in a further indication of the Assad regime’s depravity, it seems the Syrian government has made an arrangement to purchase oil from ISIL. … We estimate that beginning in mid-June, ISIL has earned approximately $1 million a day from oil sales."

The evidence is that by late 2014 and early 2015, under the pressure of the US-led coalition airstrikes, IS’s oil income was severely diminished. But IS’s oil revenue appears to have crept back up later in 2015. Treasury sanctions at the end of September 2015 disclosed that Sami al-Jabouri, an Iraqi who had been IS’s shari’a council chief and deputy in southern Mosul, was IS’s supervisor of oil and gas, antiquities, and mineral resources operations beginning in April 2015.

At that time al-Jabouri had, in collaboration with Fathi at-Tunisi (Abu Sayyaf), IS’s “oil minister,” “worked to establish a new funding stream for ISIL from increased production at oil fields held by the organisation” (italics added). It might well be that IS’s oil income is now decreasing again: US military officials said at the beginning of December that over the previous 30 days, more than 40 percent of IS’s income from oil had been “affected".

As to official Turkish complicity in the IS oil trade, the first direct evidence that this had occurred came in May 2015 when at-Tunisi was struck down by a US Special Forces raid, and captured data provided some details:

"[At-Tunisi] was almost unheard of outside the upper echelons of the terror group, but he was well known to Turkey. From mid-2013, the Tunisian fighter had been responsible for smuggling oil from Syria’s eastern fields … and Turkish buyers were its main clients. … One senior Western official familiar with the intelligence gathered at the slain leader’s compound said that direct dealings between Turkish officials and ranking Isis members was now 'undeniable'." 

“There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there,” the official told the Observer. “They are being analysed at the moment, but the links are already so clear that they could end up having profound policy implications for the relationship between us and Ankara.”

Still, whatever was previously the case, the current level of oil transactions between IS and people even in Turkey is believed to be minimal, not least because IS’s ability to refine fuel has been reduced by the air strikes and there is little market for crude oil in Turkey. There is also the fact, though, that Turkey has “clamped down on key supply routes” to IS:

"Long before Islamic State took root in Iraq and Syria, local smugglers ferried oil, gas and other supplies in and out of Turkey. … For a small cut of the action … poorly paid border officials in the region sometimes looked the other way. But … Turkey started stepping up its campaign against oil smuggling from Syria in 2012 … In 2014, according to Turkish government officials, efforts intensified … The operations 'suffocated the illegal fuel trade,' said one official in the Hatay provincial governor’s office. …"

"Turkey has doubled the number of troops on the Syrian border to 20,000, erected hundreds of miles of razor-wire fencing, installed powerful floodlights and dedicated 90% of its drone flights to border surveillance, according to one Turkish government official. … “It’s like the US-Mexican border, where, despite America’s war on drugs and all its preventative enforcement, narcotics from Mexico continue to enter the country,” the Turkish government official said. …

"US officials dismissed Mr Putin’s allegations that Turkey was backing Islamic State … as unfounded. … One former US government official who worked with Turkey on efforts against Islamic State also challenged the Russian claims. 'We knew that there was illicit oil smuggling activity along the Turkish border, but Turkey was actively seeking to contain the smuggling,' the official said."

There had been and to an extent remains a question about Turkey’s willingness to challenge IS’s operations on its soil given IS’s boasted-of capacity to inflict “civil and economic chaos” inside Turkey, something that need not be doubted given the precarious state of sectarian relations in Turkey for many years. With Turkey’s need for tourist dollars and its government relying on economic growth for legitimacy as it imposes some ugly authoritarian strictures, this was a serious threat.

Not all of this can be blamed on Turkey’s recent policies - some of the networks IS is using to smuggle oil across borders date back to the Saddam Hussein regime’s effort to evade the sanctions - but it is clear that Turkey has laid the foundations for what would be called, if it happened to Westerners, “blowback”.

Well-placed Western observers have worried about the “level of … support” for IS among the Syrian refugees in Turkey, and Syrian rebels at war with IS have noted that IS “has many spies … in Turkey, and not just spies but killers". The full force of that fact was brought home at the end of October when an IS spy who had infiltrated Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), the activist group working in IS-held areas to expose the caliphate’s crimes, murdered two RBSS journalists, Fares Hammadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, in Turkey.

The IS terrorist strikes - the 6 January suicide bombing in Istanbul, which “only” killed one person; the 5 June bomb attack on the Kurdish rally in Diyarbakir that murdered four people; the bombing of the largely Kurdish peace rally in Suruc on 20 July in which 33 people perished; and finally the bombing at the Ankara railway station on 10 October that massacred 102 people, essentially Turkey’s 9/11 - do seem to have stiffened Turkish resolve. When Turkey concluded its investigation two days ago, it is notable that of the three named major IS agents operating on Turkish soil, two had already been arrested.

Halis Bayancuk (Abu Hanzala), a senior IS leader based in Istanbul, was rounded up in late July, and Asaad Khelifalkhadr (Abu Suhayf), a key provider of logistics and supplies to IS foreign fighters arriving in Turkey, had also been taken into custody (admittedly on charges related to his fake passport rather than terrorism, though this seems to be more an Anatolian Al Capone strategy than Turkey soft-peddling the criminal case against Khelifalkhadr.)

The man still at large, Ilyas Aydin, is undoubtedly more important than the other two - he is IS’s leader in Turkey - but one has to assume he got the position on some kind of merit, so it is hardly surprising he should have proven more elusive. Dismantling the networks IS established inside Turkey while the government effectively turned a blind eye will be a massive undertaking, even with the will to do so.

As the conflict has worn on, another fact has become salient: Turkey fears the internal effects of a Kurdish State on its border more than the caliphate. The Turks joined the anti-IS coalition in August, but it quickly became apparent that Turkey’s primary goal was constraining the PYD/PKK, against which the majority of its force was targeted.

Ankara had been spooked by the PYD linking up their Jazira canton with Kobani in June by punching across northern Raqqa Province, and has made clear that any effort by the PYD to move west of the Euphrates River and connect with the Efrin canton will trigger a direct military response. One of IS’s great survival skills has been to make itself an enemy of everybody and priority of nobody.

Some of the most serious accusations against Turkey to date are of direct support, in the form of weaponry supplied by Turkish intelligence, to Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria). Turkey’s support has helped make Ahrar a-Sham, the most extreme majority-Syrian insurgent group that has links to al-Qaeda, one of the most powerful forces in northern Syria. Turkey has not been coy about this.

During an effort to construct a unified list of vetted insurgents, the US used a colour code: green (trusted allies), red (enemies), and yellow (those somewhere in the middle). America put Nusra and Ahrar in the red category; Ankara put Nusra and Ahrar in the yellow category, “gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category".

Despite American protestations, “We ultimately had no choice but to agree to disagree,” said Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador to Turkey until August 2014. Moreover, since the formation earlier this year of Jaysh al-Fatah, an insurgent coalition that includes both Nusra and Ahrar, Turkey has openly provided it support. In short, Turkey’s government has a deeply problematic view of the insurgent landscape in Syria, quite apart from its view of and policies toward IS.

So Turkey has played an unhelpful role in IS’s rise. But the problem with saying that Turkey - or Saudi Arabia, or Qatar - is really behind IS is not just distortion; it’s intellectual laziness. The wish is father to the thought; if IS is just being bankrolled by some nefarious foreign actor, then the solution is simply to shut down the funding and watch IS wither. Unfortunately, defeating IS will not be that simple.

Smuggling to the outside world, including through Turkey, of oil and antiquities, has been important, as has been the importation of foreign fighters, who have no social connections to the local areas and thus no compunction in obeying orders to commit the most appalling atrocities that help to suppress any inkling the population might have to revolt. The foreigners are largely unskilled and get used as suicide bombers and cannon fodder, but as Stalin noted: quantity has a quality all its own.

And there really are underexplored areas of IS’s finances. Nibras Kazimi had a very interesting investigative report recently on the possible earnings IS was receiving from money laundering through Iraq’s banking system - a revenue stream in amounts to dwarf anything being talked about from oil - and the unwillingness of the Iraqi political class to tackle this because unravelling IS’s holdings would unravel everybody else’s and potentially leave people vulnerable to charges of funding terrorism.

There is also the problem that Iran, the real power behind the throne in Baghdad, uses the same system to help finance its own operations, notably the war against the Syrian population.

But, helpful as all these revenue streams are, focus on them obscures the self-sustaining nature of IS’s statelet.

In terms of weapons, IS has gained some weapons from careless shipments to the Syrian rebels and even confiscated some weapons from rebels, but these are negligible. IS’s weapons are largely taken from the Iraqi military, as well as from the Assad regime directly and the above-mentioned Russian and Iranian weapons shipments to the regime.

There is no credible evidence that Saudi Arabia has ever funded IS - nor Qatar, come to that, despite the clear funding Doha provides to Hamas and Ahrar, and the deniable mechanisms Qatar at least has operated in letting supplies get to Nusra.

Foreign donors do contribute to IS, but the amount they contribute has never mattered: between 2005 and 2010 - which includes the period when IS was at its absolute nadir, driven from controlling any territory, forced underground, and its leadership shattered - documents show that IS never received more than five percent of its budget from abroad. IS has only gained in strength since then, gathering to itself the real source of its wealth: captive populations.

The population over which IS’s 80,000-square-mile statelet rules is estimated at around 10 million. The extraction of zakat from the population and a sophisticated system of “taxes” - extortion - charges the population on everything from agricultural profits and livestock to the jizya (poll tax) against non-Muslims and the confiscation of property and assets of people marked as IS’s enemies.

Destroying the caliphate’s finances, effectively and sustainably, means denying it control of territory. Any other conclusion is an attempt to circumvent the difficult task of finding a way to roll back IS’s territorial control.

-Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. This article was first published in Kyle's blog.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Broken egg shells are seen on the emblem of the Turkish embassy in Moscow on 25 November, 2015 (AFP).

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