After the Noise Dies Down, A Great Power Solution is Needed
by Stephen Bryen
The Russian government has launched a major campaign to discredit Turkey and the Turkish government and its President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, asserting that ISIS is shipping oil from Syria and Iraq to Turkey where it is either used domestically or sold internationally at significant discounts over the trading price. The Russians are making clear that it is much more than an underground operation; it is a massive transfer of oil over three different routes that is supported by thousands of tanker trucks and protected in various ways by Erdoğan and his family.
According to the Russians, ISIS has been earning around $3 million per day in this trade which has been going on for years.
And, say the Russians, until recently the United States did nothing about the shipments of oil through Turkey, which funds ISIS fighters and buys weapons and supplies for them.
The Pentagon says it knows nothing about any of this, although since Thanksgiving the US Air Force has been undertaking some limited bombing of tanker trucks in Syria.
Of course it is impossible that US intelligence does not know what the Russians already have documented rather conclusively. The question here is whether the intelligence is being suppressed or doctored. There already is a major scandal in CENTCOM, headquartered in Florida, for misrepresenting critical intelligence on ISIS. Some 50 CENTCOM intelligence analysis say that CENTCOM deliberately misrepresented findings on ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliate al Nusra, where CENTCOM was trying to show that these organizations had been weakened by US bombing. In fact they have grown stronger as the analysts and a number of senior military officials, claim. The Inspector General has launched a full investigation.
For sure, too, the US is protecting Turkey in a variety of ways including turning a blind eye to the unwarranted and vicious Turkish attacks on Kurds both inside and outside Turkey even though the Kurdish Peshmerga is the only significant ground fighting force against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.
Washington can, of course, continue to minimize Turkey’s complicity with ISIS, but allowing this to go on undermines even more any chance to reach a settlement in Syria and any hope of stabilizing affairs in neighboring Iraq.
There are a number of objective conditions to achieve a settlement in Syria. The most important is to destroy ISIS and push them out of Syria’s territory. If ISIS remains in control of Syria’s oil fields and refineries and retains a powerful military force in Syria, then there is no way to achieve any political deal. ISIS is not interested and does not need deals.
The point that Obama and Kerry missed, perhaps conveniently for them, is that the Russian proposal to defeat ISIS makes sense if one wants to get a political settlement for Syria after ISIS is destroyed. Putin’s offer to join a coalition has been rejected by Washington that has tied any deal to getting rid of Assad as a precondition. The Russians, who believe that Washington is weak, uncertain, and unwilling see Washington’s rejection of their proposal as even more evidence that Washington’s crusade against ISIS is phoney.
Obama has outlined a peculiar, wispy plan to begin to achieve a political settlement in sectors of Syria, which he thinks will eventually lead to a broader deal. There is little reason to believe this is anything but an illusion on the part of the administration. If the administration wants to be serious it has to be able to convince the Russians that it controls non Jihadist elements sufficiently strong and suitably willing to cut a deal with the Alawite minority, with or without Assad. Putin does not seem to be wedded to Assad, but he is determined to keep Russia’s presence on Syria territory and to get a deal that is not unfavorable to Russia’s interests which emphasize stability in the region and give Russia a significant role in its future.
Israel and Jordan, who have so far been on the sidelines, also have some serious interest in the shape of a future settlement. Instead of Kerry going off to Israel to try and pursue some deal with the Palestinians while the Palestinian leader is encouraging their youth to murder Israelis, a more fruitful idea would be to be asking Israel, and Jordan’s king too, what they would accept as a workable outcome.
For Israel and Jordan this must mean no al-Qaeda and no ISIS. For Israel it also means no Iranians and no Hezbollah. The Russians are on board on al-Qaeda and on ISIS but not on Iran and Hezbollah, mostly because they need their foot soldiers. But a coalition to oust ISIS could very well be conditioned on getting the Iranians and Hezbollah out of Syria and making sure that ISIS and al-Qaeda are decisively defeated.
One solution that could make sense would be a Great Powers consortium (not the UN) to stabilize a political deal –meaning US and Russian troops working together on the ground in Syria. Such a solution would not only be good for the Middle East, but it could help the US and Europe mitigate some of Russia’s expansionist ambitions.