(CNSNews.com) – Russia and Syria’s Assad regime say that Turkey shot down a Russian warplane along the Turkey-Syria border last week to protect a lucrative trade in oil smuggled from areas controlled by Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) terrorists.
Since the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber in disputed circumstances on Nov. 24, Moscow’s pro-Kremlin media outlets have mounted a campaign suggesting underhanded motives behind the action, linked to the oil smuggling.
The narrative, relying in part on accusations from officials in the Assad regime, is that Turkey shot down the plane in response to Russia’s bombing of hundreds of oil trucks used to transport stolen ISIS oil to Turkey – and that the oil smuggling network was controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan, a U.S.-educated businessman.
Sputnik, the international online platform of the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, quoted Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi as making the accusation. Similar allegations also came from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
RT, the pro-Kremlin network previously known as Russia Today, reported on what it called “speculation [that] Bilal Erdogan is directly involved in the black market oil business with Islamic State.”
It’s long been known that ISIS is funding its activities in large part by selling stolen oil, and that much of that oil is being moved through Turkey.
On Sunday, the Assad regime’s army command claimed in a statement that Turkey is providing terrorists in Syria with arms and ammunition, in exchange for oil and stolen artifacts.
Sputnik quoted President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, as saying that “certain information exists” pointing to Bilal Erdogan’s interests in the oil trade.
Putin himself has stopped short of pointing a finger at Erdogan’s son publicly, but since the aircraft downing he has stepped up accusations of a Turkish role in ISIS’ oil revenue racket.
Speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande in Moscow on Thursday, Putin said that at the recent G20 summit he had shown world leaders aerial photographs, showing convoys of oil tankers heading from ISIS-controlled areas of Syria towards Turkey.
“Vehicles transporting oil made a long line that vanished over the horizon. It looks like a living oil pipeline,” he said. “These are industrial-scale oil supplies coming in from parts of Syria now in the terrorists’ hands. This oil comes from these regions, not from other places. We see from the air where these vehicles are heading. They are heading for Turkey, day and night.”
Putin conceded that it was “theoretically” possible that Turkey’s leaders are unaware of the situation, but said he found that “hard to believe.”
“There is absolutely no question that the oil is heading for Turkey,” he said. “These vehicles are loaded in Syria, in territory controlled by the terrorists, and they go to Turkey and return to Syria empty. We see this every day.”
Several days before the plane was shot down, Russia’s military general staff released footage showing Russian aircraft evidently bombing oil tankers in Syria. “Our aviation has destroyed 500 fuel tanker trucks, which greatly reduced illegal oil export capabilities of the militants and, accordingly, their income from oil smuggling,” said spokesman Col. Gen. Andrey Kartapolov.
That action came after Russia conceded that the crash of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai last month was caused by a terrorist bomb. ISIS claimed responsibility for the incident, which killed 224.
After the Su-24 downing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Turkish counterpart that by shooting down the plane “the Turkish government has in effect sided with ISIS.”
“Turkey’s action appear premeditated, planned and undertaken with a specific objective,” Lavrov said to Mevlut Cavusoglu, according to a foreign ministry readout of the phone call.
On Friday Erdogan hit back at the accusations that Turkey was benefitting from ISIS oil.
“Shame on you,” Turkish media quoted him as saying in a speech at the presidential palace. “It’s clear where Turkey buys its oil and gas ... Those who claim we are buying oil from Daesh [ISIS] like this must prove their claims. Nobody can slander this country.”
The aircraft downing sparked a major diplomatic row between Ankara and Moscow, which has announced a range of sanctions against Turkey.
Turkey says the warplane briefly entered Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings; Russia disputes that it breached the border, or that any warnings had been received.
After the two pilots ejected from the stricken aircraft, one was shot dead by Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels as he descended by parachute, while the second was rescued on the ground by Russian and Syrian forces. A Russian marine was also killed by rebels during a search-and-rescue operation.
Erdogan and Putin are both scheduled to be at the U.N. climate conference in Paris on Monday. There has been no confirmation that they will meet on the sidelines, although Erdogan has requested a meeting.
Two days after the G20 summit – where Putin says he showed leaders photographs of the lined-up oil tankers – the Pentagon announced that U.S. warplanes had for the first time bombed oil tankers in ISIS-controlled areas of Syria.
Asked why it had taken more than a year since the anti-ISIS air campaign began to target the trucks, coalition spokesman U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren said oil infrastructure had been hit in the past, but that the move to bombing the trucks had come after “a long process of discussion, of analysis and then finally decision.”
One of the concerns, he said, was the fact the trucks were driven by civilians, not ISIS fighters.
“So we had to figure out a way around that. We're not in this business to kill civilians, we're in this business to stop ISIL – to defeat ISIL.”
In the end, leaflets were dropped 45 minutes before the bombs fell, warning the drivers to “get out of your trucks now and run away from them.”