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Interview: Turkey's Crackdown On IS's Oil Trade, And Russia's Evolving Strategy In Syria

Russian Defense Ministry officials sit under a display showing the Turkish-Syrian border during a briefing in Moscow on December 2 regarding its accusations of Ankara's involvement in the illegal IS oil trade.

Russian Defense Ministry officials sit under a display showing the Turkish-Syrian border during a briefing in Moscow on December 2 regarding its accusations of Ankara's involvement in the illegal IS oil trade.

Amid soaring tensions following Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border last week, Russia has accused Turkey and its president of involvement in illegal oil sales from the Islamic State (IS) group. The Russian Defense Ministry on December 2 produced what it said was proof of "trade routes" across the Turkish border from Syria and Iraq used in the illegal shipments of oil. Turkey has denied the allegations, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling Russia's oil trade claims "slander."

Analyst Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council told Under The Black Flag blogger Joanna Paraszczuk on December 4 that while oil trading occurs along the Turkish border, Turkey has been trying to cut down on the middlemen involved. The same brokers are also allegedly involved in human smuggling that ships foreign fighters across the Turkish border. And since the downing of its jet on November 24, Stein says, Russia has stepped up its targeting of Turkish interests in Syria, effectively "aiding the Islamic State in its recent advance in Aleppo."

RFE/RL: What is Turkey doing to crack down on the illegal IS oil trade?

Aaron Stein: Turkey, beginning about a year ago, began to implement measures to crack down on the IS oil trade. It's not perfect. But they have increased patrols and random searchers of cars in order to try and interdict illegal oil smuggling. However, the illegal smuggling of oil has been taking place on that border for decades. So the smugglers know how to circumvent the controls.

RFE/RL: Who are the middlemen involved in the trade and where do they operate?

Stein: IS has a robust network of middlemen it uses to transit Turkish territory. Gaziantep is a key hub, which feeds illicit smuggling near Elbeyli -- the main overland route for foreign fighters to IS-controlled territory.

These smugglers move in two directions: the first is to ferry men and material to Syria; the other is to get people out of Syria and into Turkey.

RFE/RL: What about Russia's accusations that Turkey is involved in the IS oil trade? Is there any substance to these allegations?

Stein: Of course Turkey is involved: IS uses the border to resupply its territory. For about a year, little was done to stop this. However, in the past six months or so, measures to stop smuggling have been enacted. It's not perfect. But it's better than in 2013-14.

However, Russia is also involved. [Russia's] key client, [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, runs a similar smuggling network. It's a robust war economy that all sides are using these days.

RFE/RL: Can you comment on the alleged routes for IS oil trading that the Russian Defense Ministry published on December 2? Are these known routes?

Stein: The routes listed in the Russian presentation suggest that oil pumped in IS-controlled territory in Syria is shipped to Turkey via territory the PYD [Kurdish Democratic Union Party in northern Syria] controls. In all likelihood, the PYD does buy oil from IS and then ships some via the black market to Turkey.

Aaron Stein

Aaron Stein

However, this process -- in all likelihood -- has nothing to do with the Turkish government per se. Instead, it represents a larger problem for Turkey: The border remains porous and smugglers and middlemen are still profiting from the war in Syria.

There are very credible reports, for example, that local officials and sporadic military patrols on the Turkish side of the border are susceptible to bribes and thus are bought off to look the other way to the booming smuggling trade along the border.

The truth is that trucks crisscross the border daily. Most deliver aid. Some weapons. Others deliver contraband.

Turkey and the PYD do talk, but to suggest that they are in bed with one another at a leadership level to profit from [IS] oil is absurd.

RFE/RL: Have Russia's actions changed in Syria since the November 24 downing of the Su-24 jet by Turkey?

Stein: Russia's [ongoing air] strikes since the Su-24 are the real story: They are targeting Turkish interests directly -- and in areas that Ankara had declared it would clear of [IS] in the forthcoming months. In this regard, Russia is aiding the Islamic State in its recent advance in Aleppo.

In the same manner, the provision of aid to the YPG [Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units] west of the Euphrates is a red line for Ankara -- and therefore risks fracturing the coalition if the group seriously undertake an offensive to unite Efrin with territory it controls east of the Euphrates.

RFE/RL: What is Russia's strategy in Syria now?

Stein: Russia's strategy appears twofold: Weaken the opposition in Aleppo -- and thereby empower IS -- while at the same time encourage the Kurds to advance east from Efrin -- and therefore risk fracturing the coalition. This strengthens [Assad's] bargaining power in the future and weakens Turkey.

All of this is taking place at the substate level. This oil business is to smear Turkey internationally.

The real fight is now unfolding.