Russia: Turkey's Erdoğan is in the oil business with ISIS

Russia's deputy defense minister accused Turkey's President Erdoğan of personally benefitting from Islamic State oil smuggling in his country, an accusation the president fiercely denies.

Yasin Bulbul/AP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, listens to President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting in Paris, France, Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. The leaders discussed the continuing crisis in Syria, and the fight against the Islamic State group.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family are benefiting from Islamic State oil smuggling, Russia alleged Wednesday.

In a Moscow briefing, officials showed satellite images of tanker trucks loaded with oil traveling from IS posts in Syria and Iraq across the border into Turkey. But no evidence of Mr. Erdoğan’s involvement has been produced, and the Turkish president adamantly denies this accusation.

Turkey is the main consumer of the oil stolen from its rightful owners, Syria and Iraq. According to information we’ve received, the senior political leadership of the country – President Erdoğan and his family – are involved in this criminal business,” said Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov. 

Erdoğan, for his part, denies any involvement in Islamic State oil smuggling, promising to resign the presidency if accusations are proved, saying, "If such a thing is proven, the nobility of our nation would require that I would not stay in office."

Although Russia has yet to present any evidence, Defense Minister Antonov confidently explained why Russian authorities say Erdoğan is involved.

“Maybe I’m being too blunt, but one can only entrust control over this thieving business to one’s closest associates,” he said. “In the West, no one has asked questions about the fact that the Turkish president’s son heads one of the biggest energy companies, or that his son-in-law has been appointed energy minister. What a marvelous family business!”

Moscow’s allegations come amid heightening tensions between the two countries after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane on Nov. 24. The US sided with Turkey’s right to protect its airspace after the attack, but if Moscow’s latest accusation is proved, Erdoğan would likely face serious international hostility.

To defeat Islamic State, Antonov says “the sources of its financing have to be crushed,” a view shared by the Obama Administration. And oil is the terrorist group’s main source of revenue: two US counter-terrorism officials told NBC News that Islamic State earns roughly $8 to $10 million a month by smuggling oil and gas.

The US and Russia have long questioned Turkey's soft response to Islamic State’s oil sales in Turkey. Though a key gateway for Islamic State oil smuggling is in the southern corridor of Turkey, Erdoğan has sidestepped any concrete efforts to attack the sales route. 

“It’s a great disappointment: There is a real danger that the effort to degrade and destroy ISIS is at risk,” Juan Zarate, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times in 2014. “You have a major NATO ally, and it is not clear they are willing and able to cut off flows of funds, fighters and support to ISIS.” 

And while Turkey’s efforts might only put a dent in one portion of Islamic State funding, US officials say any defensive action by Erdoğan would be better than nothing. 

“Like any sort of black market smuggling operation, if you devote the resources and the effort to attack it, you are unlikely to eradicate it, but you are likely to put a very significant dent in it,” a senior Obama Administration official said last year. 

Erdoğan said last week that Turkey only buys oil from legitimate sources and Ankara is actively fighting fuel smuggling in the state. But if Russia can back up their Erdoğan allegations with evidence, Turkey’s intentions in the fight against Islamic State will be called further into question.

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