The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The public relations battle getting in the way of fixing real problems in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a news conference after a meeting with French President Francois Hollande, in Moscow, on Thursday. (Pool photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko/via AP)

Who is aiding the Islamic State sale of oil that provides major financing for its terrorist operations?

Disagreement between the United States, its allies and Russia has spotlighted a public relations war over Syria, along with the actual fighting on the ground and in the air.

However, as in that bloody other war, facts are hard to come by.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on Nov. 24, the day a Russian fighter-bomber was shot down by a Turkish F-16 aircraft, spoke to reporters, using another name for the Islamic State.

“We established a long time ago that large quantities of oil and oil products from territory captured by ISIL have been arriving on Turkish territory.”

He went on to say the Islamic State “has big money, hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, from selling oil. In addition they are protected by the military of an entire nation,” although he did not specify Turkey.

In short, Russia was accusing Turkey of allowing the Islamic State to make money off its oil, something that last year was also a U.S. concern. Last October, Treasury Department Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen, said Islamic State oil was being sold “to a variety of middlemen, including some from Turkey.” Referring to President Bashar al-Assad, Cohen added, “In a further indication of the Assad regime’s depravity, it seems the Syrian government has made an arrangement to purchase oil from ISIL.”

However, on Wednesday, one day after Putin’s charge against Turkey, the Obama administration in effect accused Russian, Syrian and Cypriot businessmen and companies of secretly subsidizing the Islamic State by assisting Assad’s Syrian government to purchase Islamic State oil and evade international sanctions.

In freezing the assets of the individuals and companies involved, Cohen’s successor at the Treasury Department, Adam J. Szubin, said in a statement, “The United States will continue targeting the finances of all those enabling Assad to continue inflicting violence on the Syrian people.”

The Treasury press release even contained the caption: “Action Also Targets Russian Support to the Government of Syria.”

So now, the United States and its allies are also saying that Russia is supporting those Assad purchases of Islamic State oil and thus helping finance the terrorist group.

Last March, when the European Union put sanctions on George Haswani, one of the Syrian businessmen cited last week by the Treasury Department, it said his gas plant in a town captured by the Islamic State was being jointly run with Assad regime employees and supplied fuel to areas controlled by the Damascus regime.

While Haswani denied the allegation, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said at the time, “This listing gives yet another indication that Assad’s ‘war’ on ISIL is a sham and that he supports them financially.”

On Thursday, at his joint news conference with French President François Hollande, Putin expanded his charges that Turkish officials apparently ignored Islamic State oil entering their country.

He recalled showing aerial photographs at the Group of 20 meeting on Nov. 15 that showed “vehicles transporting oil [making] a long line that vanished over the horizon. It looks like a living oil pipeline, . . . industrial-scale oil supplies coming in from parts of Syria now in the terrorists’ hands . . . [and] heading for Turkey day and night. I can imagine that perhaps Turkey’s senior leaders are not aware of this situation. It is hard to believe, but theoretically it is possible.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded that same day, denying that Turkey brought oil in from the Islamic State and saying that Turkey was trying to stop oil smuggling. The Islamic State is also known as Daesh and ISIS. “Shame on you — those who claim we buy oil from Daesh are obliged to prove it. If not, you are a slanderer,” Erdogan said, speaking to officials in Ankara. He added that the Islamic State “sells the oil they drill to al-Assad. To Assad. Talk this over with Assad.”

This war of words has spread to U.S. and Russian military attacks on the Islamic State oil enterprise.

On Nov. 23, the Russian Defense Ministry put out a statement about its “141 combat sorties against 472 terrorist objects” over the previous two days that included bombers going for “elimination of columns of petrol tank vehicles and oil production plants in the oil-bearing regions in the north and east of Syria.”

It also reported detecting “two columns of vehicles . . . which transported oil to processing plants controlled by the ISIS grouping. An airstrike made by Su-34 aircraft destroyed about 80 petrol tank vehicles of terrorists.”

The Russian Ministry claimed that “in the course of the last five days, the Russian aircraft have destroyed over 1,000 petrol tank vehicles, which had carried out transportation of crude oil to the plants controlled by the ISIS terrorists.”

The next day, Nov. 24, Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the Joint Command in Baghdad, told Pentagon reporters that a previous day’s large strike in Syria hit near two Islamic State oil fields and “destroyed 283 oil tanker trucks.”

Warren described the Russians as starting their “striking the trucks after we . . . met with such stunning success” and described their Syrian air attacks as “reckless and irresponsible, imprecise and frankly uncaring.”

As for the Russian claims of destroying oil trucks, Warren said the United States had not done a detailed assessment of them. But where Moscow officials claimed to have destroyed 500 trucks, his guess at the real number was “under 100.” That was because the Russians were using “the imprecise and, you know, dumb bombs.”

The Washington vs. Moscow war over words about who is doing what to the Islamic State is just another sign of how difficult it’s going to be to find a real solution to our common Syria problem.