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A high-ranking official of the U.S. Treasury says the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has bought “millions and millions of dollars” in oil from the Islamic State (IS), though he concedes that some of the stolen oil is also finding its way to America’s NATO ally Turkey.
“ISIL has made more than $500 million from black market oil sales,” Adam Szubin, an acting undersecretary of the Treasury, said Thursday in prepared remarks at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. “It has looted between $500 million and $1 billion from bank vaults captured in Iraq and Syria. And it has extorted many millions more from the populations under its control.”
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Szubin gave a detailed account of how IS – also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh – profits from the oil it steals in areas it controls in various parts of the Middle East. He said an examination of the oil’s money trail shows that IS has been selling up to $40 million in oil a month at the oil wells it loots, before shipping it by truck, mostly into war-ravaged Syria.
“ISIL is selling a great deal of oil to the Assad regime,” Szubin said, then expressed bewilderment at such transactions. “The two are trying to slaughter each other and they are still engaged in millions and millions of dollars of trade.”
Szubin said that while Assad’s government gets the “far greater amount” of the stolen oil, some of it also is used by residents in areas controlled by IS, and some finds its way to Kurdish areas. He added that “Some is coming across the border into Turkey.”
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This statement appears to support the position of Russian President Vladimir Putin that Turkey is buying some IS oil, but Szubin said nothing about the validity of his accusation that Turks are “accomplices” of IS. Russia and Turkey have been at odds, to put it mildly, ever since a Turkish jet fighter shot down a Russian warplane on Nov. 24.
Turkey says the Russian jet had violated Turkish air space and ignored repeated warnings to leave. Russia, on the other hand, claim its jet never left Syrian air space during a mission against IS targets in the province of Latakia and therefore posed no threat to Turkey.
“This incident stands out against the usual fight against terrorism,” Putin said at the time. “[T]he loss we suffered today came from a stab in the back delivered by accomplices of the terrorists.” He has since accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and members of his family of personally profiting from the oil trade with IS.
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However the stolen IS oil makes its way to Turkey, Szubin said, the countries actively fighting the group – Britain, France, Russia and the United States – can’t take conventional approaches to interfering with how it finances its operations.
“ISIL presents a challenging financial target,” Szubin said. “Unlike many other terrorist groups, ISIL derives a relatively small share of its funding from donors abroad. Rather, ISIL generates wealth from economic activity within the territory it controls. This makes it difficult to constrain its funding.”
As a result, he said, the best way to starve IS is to cripple the group’s efforts to raise money by striking the oil wells that it plunders.
“Our sense is that ISIL is taking its profits basically at the wellhead,” Szubin said. “And so while you do have ISIL oil ending up in a variety of different places, that’s not really the pressure we want when it comes to stemming the flow of funding. It really comes down to taking down their infrastructure.”
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com