Because of the Turkish government’s role in the multi-spectrum US-led war against the Syrian Arab Republic, a war of words has ignited between Ankara and Moscow. Russia, however, is not alone in accusing Turkey of being involved in the theft of Syrian and Iraqi oil. Turkish opposition politicians, Turkish media, and various governments in the Middle East have also raised their voices about the role of Turkish officials in smuggling from the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq.
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24M tactical bomber jet operating in Syrian airspace at the request of Damascus was shot down by two Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets at 9:30 a.m. Moscow Standard Time (or, according to local time in the war theatre, 8:30 a.m. Eastern European Time) on November 24, 2015. The Kremlin reacted by asking for an explanation and apology. The Russian military quickly summoned the Turkish military attaché in Moscow and called the Su-24M’s downing an unfriendly act by Ankara while Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking from Sochi during a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, described it as a «stab in the back, carried out against us by accomplices of terrorists». Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic, would later describe the Turkish attack as an assault on the opponents of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL / ISIS/IS / DAESH) by the Turkish government on behalf of the US.
On the day of the Russian jet’s downing, Turkey would immediately call for consultations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to be held at 4:00 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time. It would get NATO’s backing against Russia. In 2012, however, both the NATO and Turkish positions were the opposite. When a Turkish F-4 Phantom reconnaissance jet was shot down by the Syrians on June 22, the Turkish government and NATO said that such a short-term violation did not merit a military response by the Syrians.
The analysis of the Kremlin quickly concluded that the Turkish attack on the Su-24M was intentional. Russo-Turkish tensions began to mount. «We have serious doubts this was an unintended incident and believe this is a planned provocation», Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced two days later, on November 26, after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
When Ankara refused to apologize, the Kremlin reacted by banning Turkish food imports and barring citizens of the Russian Federation from travelling to Turkey as tourists. Moscow also announced that it suspended negotiations for the construction of the Turk Stream pipeline crossing the Black Sea, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan counter-claimed that the Turkish government had already decided to end consultations on Turk Stream due to Russian non-compliance with Turkish demands. In an announcement that pleased Washington, Erdogan also threatened to turn away from Russia as an energy trading partner by finding and switching to new energy suppliers – a point that should be kept in mind when Ankara’s ties to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Turkish military deployment to the Mosul District in Iraq are analyzed.
Despite Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s claims that an open line of communication was needed between Ankara and Moscow, the flight plans of the Russian bomber jet had been given to the Pentagon as a means of reducing the risk of collisions and accidents in the air between the Russian Federation and Washington’s military cohort. The Turkish government, however, claimed that the Su-24M was shot down over its territory, but this was sharply rejected by the data provided by Russia and Syria. Even Turkish statements that the Su-24M was flying away from Turkey create doubts about the Turkish government’s claims. By Ankara’s own account the Russian bomber was only in Turkish airspace for a few seconds, but this is mathematically inconsistent with Turkish claims that ten warning were issued to the Su-24M in a period of five minutes. It is also universally recognized that the Russian pilots parachuted inside Syrian territory. The only way the Turkish argument, which has been supported by the US envoy at the North Atlantic Council, could even make sense is if Ankara’s argument was deceptively formulated on an illegal assessment by Ankara under which the Turkish military operates as though the Turkish border has been extended by eight kilometers southward into Syrian territory.
The day after the Su-24M’s downing, on November 25, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced that the S-400 mobile air defense system was being deployed to Russia’s Khmeimim (Hmeymim) Airbase in Latakia; the S-400s were then airlifted from Russia to Syria by means of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan strategic cargo jumbo jet on November 26. In an indirect message to Turkey and the US, the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces announced that Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bombers equipped with air-to-air missiles – used for air combat – were operating in Syria. The Russian Navy would also deploy the Moskva guided missile cruiser off the Levantine coast in the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin took a vow a few weeks later, on December 11, during a meeting with Chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff Valery Gerasimov that the Russian military will «immediately destroy» any hostile player threatening Russian operations in Syria.
Black Gold Rush: Looting Syrian and Iraqi Oil
Even more damning to Turkish officials, respectively on November 24 and December 2, Putin and Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov publicly revealed that Turkey was buying oil from the ISIL terrorists and that President Erdogan and his family were personally profiting from the theft of oil from Syria. Russia had already presented evidence a few weeks earlier at the G-20 meeting in Antalya that some members of the forum were helping finance the ISIL. While Erdogan’s government and Washington rejected this, the hard evidence, from witness statements and videos to oil shipment data from Turkey’s own port of Ceyhan incriminate Turkey as the transit point for the oil that the ISIL has been stealing.
As early as June 2014, Turkish parliamentarian Ali Ediboglu, the Meclis representative of the Turkish border province of Hatay on the Syrian border, revealed that 800 million US dollars worth of stolen Syrian oil was being sold to Turkey by the insurgents and terrorists in Syria. His statements were followed by similar accusations by the Turkish newspaper Taraf Gazetesi. The Wall Street Journal even casually revealed that the major political parties in Turkey had long accused Erdogan’s government of being in bed with the terrorists by writing that «Moscow has resurrected accusations by rivals of Turkey’s most powerful leaders that Ankara has covertly fueled the rise of Islamic State [IS/ISIL], deepening the diplomatic rift over last week’s shootdown of a Russian bomber».
Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, who the US had appointed as the national security advisor of Iraq in July 2003, would corroborate that Ankara was involved with the ISIL oil stealing operations on November 28, 2015. A few weeks later, on December 7, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi would add his voice to accusations by saying during a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier that most the oil that the ISIL was stealing from Iraq and Syria was being smuggled and sold via Turkey.
Referring to the theft of oil from his own country, Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi told RIA Novosti that Erdogan had personally ordered the Turkish military to shot down the Sukhoi Su-24M as a reprisal for the Russian airstrikes against the ISIL oil smuggling business that was managed by his son, Necmettin Bilal Erdogan. A short time later, various reports surfaced about Bilal Erdogan’s ownerships of a BMZ Group-affiliated Maltese shipping business named the Oil Transportation and Shipping Company. It was also reported that over a hundred oil tankers belonged to the Turkish Bayrak Company owned by Berat Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law who was appointed Turkey’s energy and natural resource minister by Prime Minister Davutoglu after the Turkish general elections on November 1, 2015.
In a similar context, Turkey has been accused of stealing industrial equipment from Aleppo and Syrian historical artifacts. Speaking to Reuters, the director-general of antiquities and museums in Syria, Maamoun Abdulkarim, has testified that over two thousand stolen Syrian artifacts are being kept in Turkey and that the Turkish government refused to document or return the historical artifacts that have been looted. These antiquities from places like the Roman ruins of Palmyra are being resold through Turkey in the international black market. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), historic sites in Syria have been looted «on an industrial scale» by the ISIL and other insurgent groups supported by Turkey.
The evidence provided by Russia was corroborated by Tehran. Iran had been complaining about Turkey’s illegal oil smuggling operations in Syria and Iraq before the Kremlin even made its revelations. Laleh Eftekhari, an Iranian parliamentarian sent an open letter on December 2 to President Erdogan’s wife, Emine Erdogan, asking her how she could remain silent about Bilal’s criminal activities.
Erdogan reacted to the Iranian position by claiming in front of the Turkish public that he had demanded to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to halt criticism from the Iranian media and that Tehran stops supporting Russian revelations about his family’s involvement in the illegal oil trade. On December 4, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hussein Jaber Ansari diplomatically responded by saying that the Turkish government should instead reverse its disastrous regional policies and support for terrorism, whereas other Iranian officials said that Erdogan was blatantly lying about his exchange with Rouhani. Mohsen Rezaie, the Iranian Expediency Discernment Council’s secretary, responded by saying that «Iranian military advisors in Syria have taken photos and filmed all the routes used by ISIL’s oil tankers to Turkey; these documents can be published».
Iran is unequivocally supportive of the Russian position in Syria. Despite the analyses arguing that the Russian military presence in Syria is marginalizing the Iranians in Syria, Moscow and Tehran are working closely together. Russian airstrikes in Syria have been coordinated with Iranian ground operations. Russian operations in Syria are believed to have been discussed when Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander fighting the ISIL in Syria and Iraq, visited Moscow in August 2015. Russia military jets have been using Iranian military bases to enter Syria, Iranian military jets are escorting Russian bombers to Syria through Iranian airspace, and Tehran has allowed the Russian Navy’s Caspian Flotilla to use its waters and airspace. Even US Secretary of State John Kerry has complained that the two powers operate in tandem in regards to the conflict in Syria.
Russia is not alone, militarily or in its charges against Turkish officials. While NATO has backed Turkey, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Syria, Iraq, and Iran have backed the Russian position against Turkey. Like the Russian Federation, the major countries bordering Turkey, as well as politicians within Turkey, also accuse Erdogan’s government of working with the ISIL and stealing oil from Iraq and Syria.
A few weeks after shooting down a Sukhoi Su-24M tactical bomber jet operating in Syrian airspace, Turkey sent a heavily armed battalion into the Zilkan military base in Iraq. The move can be seen as a compensation for the weakening of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL / ISIS / IS / DAESH) and the ISIL’s oil smuggling infrastructure. It can also be viewed as a Turkish preparation for the aftermath of the future defeat of the ISIL in Iraq.
Ominous Timing: Turkish Dispatch to Mosul
Amidst the Russo-Turkish row, the Turkish government dispatched a Turkish battalion of twenty-five M-60 Patton tanks to the Mosul District of Iraq’s Ninawa Governorate. The Turkish press even announced that Ankara had declared that it was establishing a permanent military base inside Iraq’s Mosul District. The Iraqi federal government reacted immediately by calling the Turkish move a hostile act that violated international law and Iraqi sovereignty.
Ankara tried to justify its military deployment to the Iraqi town of Bashiqa, in the close proximity of 30 kilometers to the northeastern outskirts of the ISIL-controlled city of Mosul, by claiming that it was a routine rotation of military personnel. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu claimed that the Turkish military had been dispatched to the area to train and reorganize Iraqi locals to fight the ISIL at the request of Baghdad. The Turkish deployment was presented as part of an ongoing process of security cooperation between Iraq and Turkey by Davutoglu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
At first the Turkish government claimed that the deployment was approved by the Iraqi federal government and military, but this was quickly rejected as untrue in Baghdad by President Mohammed Fouad Masum, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, and Defence Minister Khaled Al-Obeidi. Not only was the Turkish deployment rejected by the Iraqi government, it was also described as much too big for a training mission and Erdogan was derided as an outright liar by Iraqi authorities and parliamentarians. Then Ankara tried to defend its actions by absurdly claiming that it was approved by Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
The Turkish-Kurdistan Regional Government Alliance: Dividing Iraq?
It turned out that the senior diplomat Feridun Sinirlioglu, who was Turkey’s foreign minister at the time, in violation of international law had made an illegally agreement with the corrupt Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani for establishing the base in the Mosul District on November 4, 2015. As a regional government, the Kurdistan Regional Government has no constitutional authority to make defensive agreements without the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad. Nor does it have legal jurisdiction over the area the Turkish military deployed to. Bashiqa is in disputed territory in the Nineveh Governorate that Kurdistan Regional Government claims. Other territorial claims include Diyala Governorate, Kirkuk Governorate, and Saladin Governorate. In June 2014, Massoud Barzani took advantage of the ISIL offensive on Mosul to send his forces to take control over these territories while the Iraqi military was busy fighting. Thus, in parallel to the ISIL offensive against Iraq from Syria, the Kurdistan Regional Government opportunistically used the ISIL attacks to send its Peshmerga troops into the energy-rich Kirkuk Governorate, to gain control over part of the Mosul District, and unilaterally take control of the territory that the Iraqi federal government administrated.
The excuses from the Turkish government continued as tensions with Iraq increased. Instead of removing the Turkish military unit that was sent to Bashiqa, Ankara pledged not to send anymore military reinforcements until Baghdad’s concerns were placated. Indirectly meaning Iran and Russia, Davutoglu would write in a letter to Baghdad saying the governments «who are disturbed by the cooperation of Turkey and Iraq and who want to end it should not be allowed to attain their goal» on December 6, 2015.
Dragging his feet, Erdogan would add that it was «out of the question» and «impossible» to remove the Turkish military units and that the Turkish unit had been sent to Iraq to protect Turkish military trainers and advisors who he argued were posted 15 to 20 kilometers from the ISIL’s positions. Interestingly, there has been no record of the Turkish forces ever facing a serious attack by the ISIL, during the zenith of the terrorist organization’s full strength, before the Russian strikes in Syria commenced on September 30. Speaking on Turkish television, President Erdogan would blame Iran and Russia of engineering the crisis between Turkey and Iraq, and then ingenuously argue that his government’s soldiers had entered Iraq to defend Turkish security interests and that Ankara did not have the luxury of waiting for the invitation of the central Iraqi government while Turkey was under threat from the ISIL. Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim, the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, would eventually deliver a letter from Baghdad to the UN Security Council on December 11 asking the UN to get Turkey to withdraw its military from Iraq.
Ankara’s deployment to the outskirts of Mosul is a reaction to the successful campaigns by Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Hezbollah – the security alliance also referred to as the «4+1» – in weakening the ISIL. For the first time ever, the Turkish military had entered Iraq’s northern region without the justification of fighting Kurds. Calculating that the Iraqi federal government will be able to refocus its attention on the territorial dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Turkish deployments are meant to help the Kurdistan Regional Government consolidate the territory and energy reserves it opportunistically annexed from the Iraqi federal government in 2014; it was also revealed by Ankara that it intended to dispatch Turkish soldiers and military equipment to the Soran and Qala Cholan near the Iranian border.
Iraqi parliamentarians, like Awatif Nima, have accused Turkey of entering Iraq to help the ISIL in Mosul and working to partition Iraq. Turkey has been cultivating ties with the clans of Mosul, particularly the Nujaifis. Turkish support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s separate oil export capacity has also weakened the unity of Iraq and the finances of both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Orwellian language on December 9, Erdogan claimed that the governments in Iraq, Iran, and Syria were executing sectarian policies and then himself justified the Turkish deployment to the Mosul District in sectarian language. He told Al Jazeera that Turkey had elevated its military presence to protect Iraq’s Arabs, Turkomans, and Kurds that are Sunni Muslims. He then added that the Sunni Muslims all need be armed and trained to fight, which is the objective of Turkey’s mission. In this regard, not only has Turkey been planning to train and arm the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security forces, but also planning on doing the same with local volunteers in Zilkan that the Kurdistan Regional Government and Peshmerga Major-General Noorudeen Herki supportively claim are part of the Hashad Al-Watani in the Mosul District. Regardless of any affiliation to the Hashad Al-Watani, the «volunteers» in Mosul may end up being like the US and its allies trained and supported so-called «moderates» that later joined the ISIL in Syria.
Preparing for the Aftermath of the Future ISIL Defeat in Iraq?
Despite Erdogan’s assertions that the Turkish forces in the Mosul District could not leave, they were redeployed northward inside Iraq into territory administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government on December 14. Prime Minister Davutoglu’s office commented that this was a part of a «new arrangement» where ten to twelve of the tanks were being relocated northwards. While Turkey attempted to get some legal backing from the Kurdistan Regional Government for its military presence, the redeployment from Bashiqa is an omission that both Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government understand that the latter has no jurisdiction to okay Ankara’s deployment into the Mosul District.
The Turkish redeployment is the result of coordination between Ankara and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani went to Turkey on December 9 for meetings with Erdogan and Davutoglu. Subliminal messages were being sent: very tellingly the Iraqi flag was absent and only the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan was put alongside the Turkish flag during the meetings. Ankara and Barzani are trying to salvage the situation and sidestep the Iraqi government in Baghdad. A few days earlier, in this context, Erdogan announced that a trilateral meeting between the Turkish government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the US would take place on December 21.
The Turkish military movements inside Iraq are additionally tied to petro-politics and protection of energy supplies from Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish deployment to Bashiqa took place right after Russian airstrikes weakened the ISIL’s oil smuggling infrastructure. Undoubtedly, the subject of oil was mentioned between Barzani and Turkish leaders, because of Bazani’s involvement in Turkey’s illegal oil exporting business.
(to be continued)