Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Turkey funding ISIS: Evidence does not convince those who believe what they want to believe

Russian evidence is in the eye of the Western beholder

The people who want to believe you, will believe you — and the people who don’t, won’t. The truth of the matter is far less important than the opportunity to use often unprovable claims to suit your political agenda.

Such is the case with the evidence presented on Wednesday by the Russian Ministry of Defense which claims to have tied Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his family to illicit oil-trading with ISIS.

The Russian MoD has claimed it is aware of three main oil-smuggling routes from Syria into Turkey. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told press gathered for a briefing that a “team of bandits and Turkish elites” were stealing oil from their Syrian neighbours through live oil pipelines consisting of thousands of trucks. Turks, he claimed, are the main clients. To back up their claims, the ministry presented satellite imagery, videos of airstrikes on ISIS oil tankers and maps detailing the movement of oil between the two countries.

But does it matter?

Whether Russia’s evidence is legitimate or not — and there are plenty of independent reports which indicate that it very likely is — that will not stop Turkey from denying it. Or as Antonov undiplomatically put it, Erdogan and his circle would deny it “even if their faces were smeared with stolen oil”. As for the United States, Washington will likely remain relatively detached from the issue, not wanting to draw too much attention to it and all but ignoring Russia’s claims. That is, save for a few denials about the “preposterous” nature of the allegations, before returning to tacitly supporting whatever it is that Turkey is — or isn’t — doing.

In other words, evidence, whether real or fabricated, of a NATO ally working in cahoots with the terror group it claims to be out to destroy, is no silver bullet for Moscow in Syria. Many no doubt want to believe this is a total game changer, that Russia is destroying Turkey’s credibility and that this will shift the balance in its favour in Syria. But remember: Ankara and Washington may not share ISIS sympathies, but they certainly share priority number one: regime change in Syria — and that, of course, is far more important.

Moscow not alone in it claims

Skeptics determined to disprove Russia’s evidence should keep two things in mind: Claims that Turkey has been aiding and abetting ISIS are not new and they are certainly not only being made by Moscow.

More than a week before Turkey shot down a Russian warplane which it claimed had violated its airspace — a claim which was quite likely true — Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that he was in possession of intelligence that proved ISIS was funded by 40 countries — “some of the G20 members among them”. Although he stopped short of naming names, it was assumed obvious that one of the countries he was referring to was Turkey. It would be quite a stroke of luck for him to have predicted that Turkey would shoot a Russian jet down a week later.

The rush to paint Russia’s evidence as fabricated should also be slowed by the fact that for months now, information tying Turkish officials to ISIS has been trickling out into the open. The coverage has been somewhat muted — given that Turkey is a NATO member and part of the US’s anti-ISIS coalition — but it exists.

In July, the Guardian reported that US special forces had raided a compound of an ISIS leader named Abu Sayyaf  in eastern Syria. Sayyaf, it was reported, was responsible for oil smuggling and was well known to Turkey. “Black market oil quickly became the main driver of ISIS revenues – and Turkish buyers were its main clients,” the Guardian report said.

Similar reports have been printed by BuzzFeed, ABC Australia, Insurge Intelligence and others. This is not something concocted by Putin in his hollowed out volcano as a grand bond villain-style revenge plan; it would just be convenient for the Western press to stir up that kind of speculation right now. It’s easier to go with the trusty old ‘Putin is lying’ than to consider that he might not be.

It is only recently that ISIS has seen its oil business taking a hit. Russian air strikes have reportedly destroyed more than 1000 oil tankers and a number of refineries and pumping stations in the past month. The US has until now been less keen to target ISIS’s oil infrastructure. Common reasoning for this is that Washington wants to retain as much of the infrastructure as possible for later rebuilding, or that it wants to avoid environmental damage. Both claims are weak. In the face of an enemy like ISIS, infrastructure and environmental concerns would most certainly be on the bottom rung of priorities compared to hitting the group where it really hurts — its pockets.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry wrote yesterday that a more realistic assumption here is that the US’s decision to stay away from ISIS’s oil had more to do with Turkey than anything else.

He speculated: “In the past week, Putin shamed Obama into joining in a bombing operation to destroy hundreds of trucks carrying ISIS oil to Turkey. Why that valuable business was allowed to continue during the U.S.-led war on ISIS since summer 2014 has not been adequately explained. It apparently was being protected by Turkish President Erdogan.”

This is all to say nothing of the accusations that Turkey has been forging Syrian passports (two of which were found near the bodies of the suspected Paris attackers). Or that a Turkish daily newspaper reported that thousands of fake Turkish passports had found their way into ISIS hands.

And then there’s Serena Shim, the American journalist suspiciously killed in a car crash near the Turkey-Syria border when a heavy vehicle rammed into her car just days after receiving death threats and being accused by Turkish intelligence of being a spy. She had been investigating collusion between Turkish officials and Islamic extremists in Syria. Shim’s death was met with near-silence in the US. Freedom of the press, it appears, matters just a little bit less when journalists are working to expose the wrongdoings of US allies. Today, two other journalists are behind bars in Turkey, pending trial on terrorism charges, for reporting that Turkey had been smuggling arms to Syrian rebels.

Media believes what it wants to believe

How much stock does the media put in satellite imagery produced by governments as “evidence” to back up claims? Well, a lot, it turns out, if you are, say, the US State Department or a NATO official claiming that Russia has invaded Ukraine. Less, if you are a Russian official claiming that ISIS oil is finding its way into Turkey.

A quick comparison reveals some interesting double standards. Mashable, for example, used this headline when NATO provided satellite imagery claiming to prove that Russia had massed 40,000 troops on its border with Ukraine: NATO: Boom, Here's Proof of Russian Troops on Ukraine Border

“Boom!”

Another headline from Mashable a few months later reads: Russia Denies It, But Images Show Forces Inside Ukraine. Again, instant belief in the authenticity of American evidence. In contrast, here is Mashable reporting on Russia’s evidence of Turkey’s ISIS links; a far more muted: Russia's top brass claims satellite images prove Turkey's oil trade with ISIS. That report then continues with much skepticism over the legitimacy of Russia’s satellite imagery evidence.

To take another example, here is Business Insider’s headline about NATO’s Ukraine evidence: NATO Releases Satellite Evidence That Russia Is Lying About Invading Ukraine. No skepticism, just immediate acceptance that the US is telling the truth and Russia is most definitely “lying”.

The media — Western and otherwise —  will go on believing only what it wants to believe and “evidence” — real or not — will rarely ever be a game changer.

Yesterday, Erdogan shot back at Putin, claiming that it is in fact Russia involved in illegal oil trading with ISIS, not Turkey. "We have the proof in our hands. We will reveal it to the world,” he said.

One wonders why he left it until now to reveal such a bombshell. Maybe journalists will be more interested in that angle?

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