Russia is No Partner Against the Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 12, 2016


This morning, Russia ostensibly agreed to help the U.S. impose a ceasefire in Syria within a week—on the way to a negotiated settlement. This could not work right now, even if Russia intended it to. But Russia does not. Russia’s role since intervening in Syria in late September 2015 has been to bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad and a primary tactic in that overarching strategic aim has been the attempt to destroy all opposition to Assad that the international community could possibly deal with, and to create a binary situation where there is only the regime and jihadi-Salafist terrorists, primarily the Islamic State (IS), and secondarily—in areas where they do not threaten key regime interests—Jabhat an-Nusra (al-Qaeda). Moscow will eventually turn on IS, but in the short-term Russia has engaged in indirect coordination with IS to weaken the rebels and push them out of key strategic areas, notably in eastern Aleppo where Russia bombed rebels out of the way who had been holding IS out for years. On Tuesday, Foreign Policy reported on another aspect of this Russia-IS collaboration that aims to empower the takfiris in the short-term as part of the long-term plan, also supported by Iran, to secure the Assad regime in power.

Funding Takfiris

Foreign Policy reports:

The Tuweinan gas facility, which is located roughly 60 miles southwest of the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, is the largest such facility in Syria. It was built by Russian construction company Stroytransgaz, which is owned by billionaire Gennady Timchenko, a close associate of Putin. … The Syrian government originally awarded the contract to construct the Tuweinan facility to Stroytransgaz in 2007. The construction utilized a Syrian subcontractor, Hesco, which was owned by Russian-Syrian dual national George Haswani. …

Construction continued slowly until a coalition of Syrian rebel groups seized the facility in a joint operation with the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in January 2013. … The Islamic State has been in control of the facility since [January] 2014.

A senior Turkish official said that after its seizure, Stroytransgaz, through its subcontractor Hesco, continued the facility’s construction with the Islamic State’s permission. He also claimed that Russian engineers have been working at the facility to complete the project.

Syrian state-run newspaper Tishreen published a report appearing to corroborate this claim. In January 2014, after the facility was captured by the Islamic State, the paper cited Syrian government sources, saying that Stroytransgaz had completed 80 percent of the project and expected to hand over the facility to the regime during the second half of the year. The article didn’t mention that the facility was under the control of the Islamic State.

According to David Butter, … who has seen a letter written by George Haswani explaining the details of the project, the facility’s first phase of production started towards the end of 2014, and it became fully operational during 2015. “Some of the natural gas goes to the Aleppo power station, which operates under the Islamic State’s protection, and the remainder is pumped to Homs and Damascus,” he said.

Abu Khalid[, a member of a rebel brigade that took over the facility in 2013,] said that Russian engineers still work at the facility, and Haswani brokered a deal with the Islamic State and the regime for mutually beneficial gas production from the facility. “IS allowed the Russian company to send engineers and crew in return for a big share in the gas and extortion money,” he said … “Employees of the Russian company were changing their shifts via a military base in Hama governorate.” …

The details of the Tuweinan deal brokered between the Islamic State and Hesco was first reported by the Syrian media collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently in October 2014.

Much of the DNA of this story—that Syria’s energy sector is effectively a joint enterprise of the Assad regime and IS, with a strong official Russian role in facilitation—was already known.

All the way back in March 2014 I was able to write of the regime using oil deals as one facet of its provocation (what the Russians call provokatsiya), the Moscow-perfected tactic of having your terrorist enemies do your work for you, something that has served Russian intelligence since the 1870s. By helping fund IS, Assad—and his allies in Moscow and Tehran—intended to empower IS to destroy or absorb all the other insurgents, allowing Assad present himself to the population and the world as the last line of defence. It had worked for Algeria and by the end of 2014 it appeared to be working in Syria, too.

For Tuweinan specifically, as Foreign Policy summarized:

In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that the gas produced in the plant was sent to the Islamic State-held thermal power plant in Aleppo. The deal provides [per day:] 50 megawatts of electricity for the regime, while the Islamic State receives 70 megawatts of electricity and [is able to produce] 300 barrels of condensate. The engineers who worked at the plant told the Financial Times that Hesco also sends the Islamic State roughly $50,000 every month to protect its valuable equipment [worth millions of dollars].

These cash and in-kind payments (often of specialist equipment and technicians) from Assad to IS, in exchange for oil and gas, were replicated all across the areas under the caliphate. The integration of the Assad regime and IS on energy matters was markedly increased after the fall of Tadmor and the adjacent, ancient city of Palmyra to IS in May 2015, when IS captured several gas facilities in the surrounding Homs desert.

Gas supplies ninety percent of Syria’s power grid and by the end of the summer, as The Financial Times reported, IS controlled “at least eight power plants in Syria, including three hydroelectric facilities and the country’s largest gas plant.”

The largest gas plant under IS control is in Deir Ezzor, called “Conoco” after the American company that build it, and is the one processing plant IS holds. Conoco is used by IS to produce gas canisters for domestic consumption by the population it controls and to provide fuel for a regime-controlled power station in Jandar, Homs.

IS has several times gained control of parts of the Shaer gas field, about ninety miles north-west of Palmyra, which supplies just under half of Syria’s electricity. “Marwan,” a Sunni engineering graduate who has now fled Syria, told The Financial Times that after IS took Palmyra, “many of his friends working at Hayyan, near Shaer, wanted to flee. ‘The army wouldn’t let them. They said who ever tried to run will be shot dead’.”

One of the most comprehensive attempts to put some numbers on this was undertaken by Matthew Reed of Foreign Reports in late October. Reed showed that the regime was receiving 20,000 barrels per day (BPD) of oil from an unnamed source. If IS was filling that gap from its estimated 50,000 BPD production, it meant the regime was paying forty percent of IS’s hydrocarbon income*. If Reed’s estimate that IS was selling oil for between $15 and $25 per barrel is correct, then Assad was transferring between $300,000 and $500,000 to IS per day either directly in cash or in other resources needed to keep its statelet alive.

(While the oil question is important to assessing the Assad regime’s politico-military strategy, it should be noted that the oil angle of IS’s finances is overworked in general and the situation has changed and varied wildly over the last year. For example, documents from early 2015 showed that IS was making much less from oil than had been believed, though there seems to have been a recovery of sorts by late 2015.)

Nor is the Russian element to this exactly a revelation. U.S. Treasury sanctions in November blacklisted Haswani, essentially for funding terrorism as the Assad regime’s “middleman” in the hydrocarbon trade that transferred Syrian State funds to IS. European Union sanctions had already been applied to Haswani for “orchestrating millions of dollars’ worth of secret oil and gas trades between” Assad and IS.

The Treasury sanctions last fall laid bare the very strong Putin-approved Russian element in the Assad regime’s mechanisms for funding IS, from banks to companies. Those sanctions listed HESCO as a designated entity, a company that was essentially the Syrian wing of Stroytransgaz, a Russian sub-entity of the Volga Group. Both Stroytransgaz and Volga had Treasury sanctions applied in April 2014, as did their owner, Timchenko, for their close relations to the Kremlin and provision of services enabling Vladimir Putin’s criminal aggression against Ukraine.

Turkey and the Propaganda War

The recent accusations from Moscow against Turkey, that Ankara was colluding with IS in trading oil, can therefore be filed in the Freudian category.

After Turkey shot down a Russian jet that violated its airspace on November 24, Moscow increased the volume of its propaganda—already extensive—that said Ankara was in cahoots with IS.

It is true that Turkey allowed an open border for a long time to jihadi-Salafists, including those joining IS, and it is also true that to this day Turkey regards a Kurdish State on its border as a greater threat to its national security than IS. But Russia had been sending jihadi-Salafists into Syria; it was a bit rich to be complaining that Turkey had let them.

Moreover, Russia’s propaganda was on its face absurd: inter alia the Defence Ministry named the three crossings IS was supposedly smuggling oil across into Turkey; one was in Idlib miles from any IS position, one was in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the other is held by the increasingly-obviously Russia-aligned PYD/PKK.

Recently, Russia has even revised its messaging story on the downing of the Metrojet in the Sinai to include a Turkish component, namely the Grey Wolves, a quasi-fascist group in Turkey that Moscow alleges is tied to Ankara’s security services. In reality, the Grey Wolves’ only certain State intelligence connections were with the KGB and its satellites. Again, there was more than a little projection in Russia’s accusations that Turkey was connected to terrorism.

Given that Russia is currently enabling the pro-Assad offensive in Aleppo, which is led by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (a U.S. designated terrorist group) and its proxies, including Lebanese Hizballah (also a listed terrorist group), it is a bit difficult to maintain that Russia’s intentions in Syria are to defeat Islamist terrorism.

But then Russia doesn’t consider Hizballah a terrorist organization, instead regarding them as a “legitimate socio-political force,” elected by the people of Lebanon. Which is why they’re fighting in Syria, under the control of Iran. Russia regards Hizballah as so legitimate an interlocutor, in fact, that Hizballah has been “receiving heavy weapons directly from Russia with no strings attached”—according to none other than Hizballah itself.

Russia does regard Jaysh al-Islam as terrorist, however, which is why they assassinated its leader, Zahran Alloush, on Christmas Day. Jaysh al-Islam—for all its problems—is not transnationalist, as Hizballah is, and has been solidly and consistently opposed to IS and restrained its ability to gain terrain. The same cannot be said for Russia’s intervention.

An Intervention Against Whom?

In the first week of Russia’s intervention in late September, I wrote that “Putin’s aims in Syria can be boiled down to two: (1) Ensure the Assad tyranny survives, which includes … destroying all the moderate rebels so that Syria can be presented as a choice of Assad or [IS], legitimizing Russia’s support for Assad; and (2) humiliating the West on the way to constructing an alternate world order to American hegemony.” So it proved. U.S. intelligence soon reported that Russia was systematically attacking U.S.-backed rebels, and more than ninety percent of Russia’s airstrikes hit anti-Assad targets who were also anti-IS.

By the second week of the intervention, Russia had effectively become IS’s air force in its attacks on the rebellion. Russia killed, by its own estimate, two-hundred insurgents in Aleppo Province between October 8 and 9. Russia claimed they were IS. They clearly were not: on October 9, IS made its largest gains since it took over Palmyra and Ramadi in May, sweeping through six villages in Aleppo that the rebels had held IS out of for two years, bringing IS within a mile of regime-held territory—with no Russian response at all. This was a continuation of the Assad regime’s policy.

In January 2014, the rebellion went on the offensive against IS, driving IS from positions in seven provinces; during the clashes, Assad launched air attacks on the rebels. In June 2015, even the State Department was moved to note that Assad was conducting a joint offensive with IS against the rebels in Aleppo. And during this current Assad-Iranian-Russian effort to extinguish the rebellion in Aleppo, the pro-Assad coalition and IS—despite now having their front lines directly next to one-another—have conspicuously left one another alone.

Moscow has ostensibly agreed today to impose a ceasefire in Syria by February 19. Even on its own terms this agreement would give the Assad regime and its allies a free week to attempt to complete the encirclement of Aleppo City. But the ceasefire cannot succeed and Russia seems once again to have outfoxed the U.S. administration. The U.S. has apparently agreed that not just IS and Nusra but a “couple of other groups” will be considered terrorists, and therefore legitimate targets even after the ceasefire is implemented. This is merely a bonus for Russia, which has always said that all insurgents are IS and Nusra—and done its utmost to try to make that true, while posing as a counter-terrorism partner.


[*] UPDATE: I got in touch with Matthew Reed to ask whether he thought the situation was that much different now to the time of his writing in October. “I doubt the regime is buying much oil from ISIS these days just because there’s less to go around,” Reed said. “20,000 b/d is a lot to move and I’m not convinced they ever bought that much; it’s just an intriguing data gap. We know [Assad] bought some but it sounds like these days the trade [between the regime and ISIS] is mostly in gas.”


12 thoughts on “Russia is No Partner Against the Islamic State

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