That other war in the Middle East — the Russia-Turkey standoff

Ever since Turkey shot down the Russian plane, there has been an unrelenting counterblast from Moscow aimed at shattering Turkey's international reputation and driving a wedge into the anti-ISIS alliance, Brian Stewart writes. It may even be working.

Kremlin's constant accusations against Turkey driving a wedge into NATO's anti-ISIS alliance

Military attaches and journalists talk after a Russian Defence Ministry briefing in which Moscow said it had proof that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family were benefiting from the illegal smuggling of oil from ISIS-held territory. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Ever since Turkey shot down that Russian SU-24 bomber last month there has been an extraordinary, unrelenting counterblast from Moscow aimed at shattering the Turkish government's international reputation.

On the surface, Russia's response may look like classic Cold War style-Moscow propaganda, but Vladimir Putin's tell-all tactics are causing serious discomfort among Turkey's NATO allies.

Russia has also imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in retaliation for the downed plane and the death of its co-pilot, including shutting down a proposed gas pipeline that would obviously hurt both countries' economies.

But it is President Putin's media offensive that is receiving far more attention as the Kremlin comes out with one alleged exposé after another, to the point of accusing Turkey's Islamist-rooted leadership of being in collusion with ISIS.

Courtesy of Moscow, the international media are being fed stories and satellite photos to back up the claims that ISIS is profiting from running illegal oil shipments across the Syrian-Turkish border.

According to the Kremlin, the porous border is also allowing ISIS to receive backflows of munitions and new fighters.

Western analysts have noted this loose border as well, but Putin goes further, claiming that this transaction is taking place with what Moscow calls the obviously corrupt connivance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his authoritarian inner circle.

Erdogan strongly denies the charges and has fired back with his own allegations of Russian misdeeds in Syria — he claims the Russians are engaged in "ethnic cleansing" along Syria's Turkish border by bombing villages that have risen up against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.  

But as often happens with scandal stories, denials get buried under the sheer weight of new accusations, and the conspiracy narrative has become a nightly feature on Russian Television's international news channel.

Cross-border intrigue

As Moscow tells it, Erdogan has several reasons for going easy on ISIS.

One is simply to avoid incurring ISIS terror attacks inside Turkey itself.

Another is that the jihadists are useful to Turkey in taking on its prime enemy, Syria's President Assad — the enemy of my enemy is my friend equation.

Animosity on both sides. Pro-Islamist demonstrators, holding a Syrian opposition flag and a defaced poster of Putin, shout slogans during an anti-Russian protest in Istanbul last month. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

Moscow has charged that the cross-border smuggling is hugely lucrative for intermediaries and that some of those payoffs flow into the pockets of Erdogan and members of his family.

The kicker allegation from the Kremlin was that the SU-24 was shot down as it very briefly entered Turkish air space as a warning to other Russian planes to stop snooping on and interfering with these contraband routes.

Obviously these allegations, if ever proven, would badly rattle NATO and the anti-ISIS alliance.

Turkey is supposedly a key block in the anti-ISIS coalition, so evidence of such dealings would be a serious blow to unity, to put it mildly.

But while the U.S. and European allies have denounced Russia's charges, the cries of "outrageous" are not as firm as Ankara may have expected.

That's because NATO leaders are in a hyper-awkward position at the moment, precisely because they have their own questions — bordering on doubts — about Erdogan's commitment to fight ISIS.

For years they've been frustrated by the ease with which thousands of ISIS recruits, including Canadians, passed through Turkey on their way to jihad in Syria or Iraq.

It was only late this past summer, after all, that Turkey formally joined the coalition, as it was facing Washington's complaints that it had to "do more" to combat the common enemy.

Since then Turkey has moved 20,000 troops to the border area and is building more security fencing.

Yet there remains a puzzling 98-kilometre gap in the security line that President Barack Obama was still complaining to Erdogan about as recently as this month.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially dismissed the notion of economic retaliation over the downed plane as "emotional" and "unfitting of politicians." He later accused Russia of attempting "ethnic cleansing" with its Syrian bombing. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

One has to wonder why Turkey with a proficient land army of some 400,000 can spare only 20,000 soldiers to clamp down on the obviously critical supply lines for ISIS that have been in operation for years.

And it is not just Russia raising these questions. International media, including the Financial Times, have been running stories tracing just how ISIS refines oil then sells it to freelance traders, some of whom smuggle it into Turkey for resale on the black market.

Similar reports record how ISIS and other armed units smuggle in weapons and fighters across the same border areas.

Sowing suspicion

Military analysts concede Turkey has moved to block some illicit traffic this year, and that along with allied air strikes on refiners and tankers this has reduced ISIS oil sales by almost half.

Still, a substantial $30 million is raised by ISIS every month, according to U.S. estimates.

There are other dark edges to this story. Erdogan's increasingly iron-fisted government has raised the suspicion level by its suppression of Turkish media reporting on the smuggling.

Earlier this year, for example, two editors were jailed and charged with espionage after their expose apparently caught state security officials sending arms to jihadists, hidden within food lorries.

Certainly Putin is scarcely a natural source for lectures on government corruption and media transparency, but he gets international attention by cheekily daring Erdogan to let domestic and foreign media inspect Turkey's ports and border zones believed to be part of the contraband trail.

Turkey's allies, whatever their suspicions, really have little choice but to show Erdogan measured goodwill.

NATO needs Turkey's air bases to strike at ISIS, while the European Union has just set up a $3.5-billion fund to help Turkey's generally praised handling of Syrian refugees.

Vladimir Putin used his annual state of the nation speech to warn Turkey the Kremlin planned to adopt further sanctions against it for shooting down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. (Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/Reuters)

What's more, it is widely assumed Russia's high dudgeon has less to do with the downed bomber than with Moscow's unease over Turkey's growing geo-political ambitions in the Middle East, which conflict with Putin's own high-stakes gamble in backing Syria's Assad.

Putin clearly feels his expose rhetoric works to undercut his foes and the baser the charges the better.

In this case, the timing is particularly awkward given the ongoing diplomatic efforts to get a Syrian ceasefire established.

There's no sign yet however that Putin is ready to let up on this slanging war that has infuriated Turkey and thrown another curve at its Western partners.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.