Moscow steps up attacks on Turkey as Vladimir Putin accuses Ankara of letting Isis smuggle out oil

Vladimir Putin has accused Ankara of permitting jihadists to smuggle oil across its border, in a ratcheting up of tensions following the shooting down of a Russian jet

Laura Pitel,Nadia Beard
Friday 27 November 2015 21:45
IS oil

Vladimir Putin accused Turkey of allowing Isis jihadists to run a “living oil pipe” across its border as he upped the ante in the row over the downing of a Russian jet.

The Russian President said that reconnaissance footage, shared with world leaders at the G20 summit earlier this month, showed that oil was being smuggled through rebel-held Syria and into Turkey “day and night”. There were “vehicles, carrying oil, lined up in a chain going beyond the horizon”, he claimed.

Speaking after talks at the Kremlin with the French President Francois Hollande, Mr Putin accused Ankara of false naivety over Isis’s huge oil operation. “Let’s assume that Turkey’s political leadership knows nothing about it – it’s theoretically possible, albeit hard to believe,” he said. “There may be elements of corruption and insider deals. They should deal with it.”

Mr Putin has gone for the jugular after the Turkish military shot down the Russian SU-24 jet after accusing it of violating its airspace during an operation in northern Syria. The incident is thought to be the first time in 50 years that a Nato member has downed a Russian plane.

Turkey is acutely sensitive to claims that it is turning a blind eye to Isis, a view held not only by Russia but also by Western states who believe that Turkey has not done enough to prevent militants from slipping across its 500-mile border with Syria.

Turkey and Russia have been on opposing sides since the outset of civil war in Syria in 2011, but strong energy and trade links had previously tempered their differences.

The downing of the Russian jet on Tuesday not only unleashed a row between the two nations but also threatened to shatter a fragile international consensus to fight Isis after a series of deadly attacks.

Mr Putin’s jibes have focused renewed attention on Turkey’s response to Isis. Experts say that the militant group, which last year seized a swathe of territory across Iraq and Syria, is generating vast revenues of up to $1m a day by selling oil from captured oilfields.

The United States, which recently began targeting Isis oilfields and supply lines with air strikes, has said that some of the oil is covertly bought by the government of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. The European Union has also imposed sanctions on an alleged middleman for oil deals between Isis and the regime,

However, Turkey also stands accused of allowing oil to be carried across its border. Earlier this year, Ali Ediboglu, an opposition MP from the southern Turkish province of Hatay, claimed that Isis was smuggling oil worth $800m a year through his country.

Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said that it was acknowledged by all sides that smuggling routes had long existed on the Turkish border. “The question is how does the oil get from where it is extracted into Turkey,” he said. “Is it true that Kurds are facilitating it as the Turks like you to think? Is it opportunists? I think it’s hard to imagine that the Turkish state does not know what’s going on across that border, particularly when you consider the extent to which they monitor the activity of Kurdish groups.”

He added, however, that the availability of smuggled oil in southern Turkey had reportedly lessened recently due to increased Turkish vigilance. Nor had he seen any evidence that the Turkish national oil company was buying oil from Isis territory. Mr Erdogan himself has rejected Russia’s accusation that Turkey is involved in buying the oil, describing the claim as “slander”.

Moscow continued to turn the screws on Turkey in other ways in retaliation for the downed jet. Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Defence, said that Russia would be ending its participation in the Black Sea Naval Force. The initiative, which involves a number of nations including Russia and Turkey, was established to promote military co-operation under which members performed joint naval drills.

Russia’s military attaché for ground forces and another for defence may also be withdrawn from Turkey, while a bilateral year of culture and tourism with Turkey scheduled for 2017 and 2018 is set to be cancelled.

In further blow for the relationship, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the suspension of visa-free travel to Russia for Turkish citizens with effect from 1 January 2016. Russians are still able to travel to Turkey despite warnings from Mr Lavrov and the Russian President to stay away. However, Russia’s state tourism agency has banned all tour operators from offering holiday packages to Turkey to its Russian customers.

Rusian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Turkish leaders have swung between defending their decision to shoot down the plane and seeking to cool tempers. Mr Erdogan yesterday requested to meet Mr Putin on the sidelines of a climate conference in Paris on Monday, saying: “I would like to bring the issue to a reasonable point. We are disturbed that the issue has been escalated.” The Russian President’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said that the Kremlin had received the request for a meeting but would not say if it would be accepted.

In a sign of Mr Erdogan’s acute sensitivity over his country’s role in the Syrian conflict, on Thursday a Turkish court ordered the detention of two senior newspaper journalists for a report that alleged that Turkey was smuggling arms to rebels.

Hundreds protested outside the offices of Cumhuriyet after Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were placed in pre-trial detention on charges of spying and “divulging state secrets” for publishing what it said were images of Turkish trucks carrying ammunition to Syrian militants in January 2014. Mr Erdogan, who has presided over a decline in press freedom in recent years, had previously vowed to retaliate for the story. “The person who wrote this story will pay a heavy price for it; I won’t let him go unpunished,” he said in June.

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey’s CHP opposition party, described the arrests as “a black day of democracy and freedom of the press”.

On the ground in Syria, heavy fighting has continued in the region where the Russian jet was operating before being struck down, with Turkmen villagers forced to flee.

Dr Kerem Kinik, vice president of the Turkish Red Crescent, confirmed reports in the Turkish press that inhabitants had left their homes because “they were afraid of a massacre” as the Syrian troops and their allies advanced.

He told The Independent that bombing had intensified since the downing of the plane, saying that it was “a fact” that Russia was punishing Turkey by attacking Syrian opposition fighters in the area. “In the Turkmen mountains the attacks have risen,” he said. “There is a hospital being run by Doctors Worldwide in Bayirbucak. It’s the only trauma hospital in that area. They are receiving 40 to 50 wounded people a day, some of them heavily wounded.”

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