Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Russia, Turkey and the rise of Islamic State

Turkish policy has made the Islamic State group stronger, but Russia’s policy has been far more cynical, writes Kyle Orton

Al-Ahram Weekly

Turkey concluded its biggest investigation to date into Islamic State (IS) operatives on its territory late last year 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 the latter has been far more cynical than Turkey’s and has been deliberately intended to empower extremists to discredit the rebellion against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

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

Turkey shot down a Russian jet on 24 November, the first time since 1952 that a NATO member had brought down a Russian military aircraft. Ankara claimed that its airspace had been violated and 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. Moscow then imposed economic sanctions against Turkey, including limiting tourism and banning charter flights and also trade in certain foodstuffs.

Russian President 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 in oil, but also in weapons. Moscow subsequently accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of personally profiting from the criminal trade in oil with IS.

The reality is quite otherwise, of course. As David Butter of the UK think tank Chatham House put it, given Turkey’s reliance on Russia for energy “if oil was a consideration for the Turkish authorities … they 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. But the problem is that not one of the border crossings on the map 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 Al-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 Turkish Kurdish PKK, pushed IS out of Tal Abyad in June, the only border crossing left to IS was Jarabulus.

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

Russia has also helped the Al-Assad regime in its efforts to strengthen extremist forces in overpowering 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 by 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 Al-Assad overthrown and finding that the United States was effectively on the other side, which meant Turkey had to go it alone. From 2011 until shortly after IS stormed into the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in mid-2014, Turkey maintained effectively an open border with Syria. Anecdotal reports abounded of visible foreign jihadists 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 those 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.


Turkish oil sales: 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 that “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 Al-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 US$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’ oil income was severely diminished. But IS’ oil revenues appear to have crept back up later in 2015. US treasury sanctions at the end of September 2015 disclosed that Sami Al-Jabouri, an Iraqi who had been an IS official and deputy in southern Mosul, was IS’ supervisor of oil and gas, antiquities, and mineral resources operations beginning in April 2015.

At that time Al-Jabouri had, in collaboration with Fathi Al-Tunisi (aka Abu Sayyaf), IS’ “oil minister”, “worked to establish a new funding stream for ISIL from increased production at oil fields held by the organisation.” It might well be that IS’ oil income is now decreasing again: US military officials said at the beginning of December that over the previous 30 days, more than 40 per cent of IS’ 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 Al-Tunisi was struck down by a US Special Forces raid and captured data provided some details.

“[Al-Tunisi] was almost unheard of outside the upper echelons of the terror group, but he was well known to Turkey,” a US commentary on the data said. “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 IS members was now ‘undeniable’. There are hundreds of flash drives and documents that were seized there. 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.”

But whatever was previously the case, the current level of oil transactions between IS and Turkey is believed to be minimal, not least because IS’ ability to refine fuel has been reduced by air strikes and there is little market for crude oil in Turkey. There is also the fact 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, efforts intensified [and] the operations suffocated the illegal fuel trade,” said one official in the Hatay provincial governor’s office in Turkey.

“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 per cent of its drone flights to border surveillance. 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 official said.

One former US government official who has 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 has been and to an extent there remains the question of Turkey’s willingness to challenge IS operations on its soil given IS’ boasted 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 has been 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 former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein regime’s effort to evade 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 the latter fact was brought home at the end of October when an IS spy who had infiltrated the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) activist group working in IS-held areas to expose the group’s crimes, murdered two RBSS journalists, Fares Hammadi and Ibrahim Abdel-Qader, in Turkey.

The IS terrorist strikes — the 6 January suicide bombing in Istanbul, which 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 — seem to have stiffened Turkish resolve. When Turkey concluded its investigation recently, it was notable that of the three named major IS agents operating on Turkish soil, two had already been arrested.

Halis Bayancuk (aka Abu Hanzala), a senior IS leader based in Istanbul, was rounded up in late July, and Asaad Khelifalkhadr (aka Abu Suhayf), a key provider of logistics and supplies to IS foreign fighters arriving in Turkey, has also been taken into custody (admittedly on charges related to his fake passport rather than terrorism). The man still at large, Ilyas Aydin, is undoubtedly more important than the other two — he is IS’ 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 has established inside Turkey while the government effectively turned a blind eye will be a massive undertaking, even with the will to do so.


Turkish support: 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 IS group.

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 forces were targeted. Ankara had been spooked by the PYD linking up their Jazira canton with Kobani in June by punching across the northern Raqqa Province, and it has made it 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’ 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 Al-Sham, the most extreme majority Syrian insurgent group that has links to Al-Qaeda, one of the most powerful forces in northern Syria. And 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 Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham in the red category, but Ankara put them in the yellow category, “gambling that they could build a moderate rebel force by nudging groups in the middle toward the green, friendly category.”

“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 of Jaysh Al-Fatah earlier this year, an insurgent coalition which includes both Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham, Turkey has openly provided it with 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 towards IS.

So Turkey has played an unhelpful role in IS’ rise. But the problem with saying that Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, are really behind IS is not just distortion. There is also intellectual laziness. The wish is father to the thought: if IS is 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 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.

And there really are underexplored areas of IS’ finances. There was a very interesting investigative report recently on the possible earnings IS has been 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’ 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, is using the same system to help finance its own operations, notably the war against the Syrian population.

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

In terms of weapons, IS has gained some weapons from careless shipments to the Syrian rebels and even confiscated some weapons from them, but these are negligible. IS’ weapons are largely taken from the Iraqi military, as well as from the Al-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 Al-Sham and the deniable mechanisms Qatar at least has operated in letting supplies get to Jabhat Al-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 per cent 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’ 80,000-square-mile statelet rules is estimated at around 10 million. The extraction of zakat from this population and a sophisticated system of “taxes” charges the population on everything from agricultural profits and livestock to the jizya (poll tax) on non-Muslims and the confiscation of the property and assets of people marked as IS’ enemies.

Destroying the IS group’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’ territorial control.

The writer is a Middle East analyst and an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in the US.

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