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A black-market mentality shapes Middle East politics

The Middle East’s politics and the international handling of the region’s extraordinary affairs bear a certain resemblance to black-market gambling

Raed Omari

Published: Updated:

“Before you can begin to think about politics at all, you have to abandon the notion that there is a war between good men and bad men.” - Walter Lippmann

Russia, Turkey and Syria suddenly began trading accusations earlier this month about who buys oil from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Indeed, such claims contradict, or betray, the international community’s anti-ISIS efforts but they show exactly why Middle Eastern politics are complicated, unreliable and unpredictable.

Still, the timing of such accusations is important - why did they wait so long to reveal such activities, which if true, make their anti-ISIS rhetoric hypocritical?

Russia has accused Turkey of smuggling 200,000 barrels of ISIS oil daily, with President Vladimir Putin describing the volume as “industrial.” He said Ankara shot down a Russian warplane to protect its trade with ISIS. Moscow displayed still images from a video showing convoys of fuel transporters on the Syrian-Turkish border, said to be carrying ISIS oil. Why were such images not shown or taken before?

Why no evidence before?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has angrily dismissed Russia’s claims, saying he will resign if they are proven true. He was quoted as saying a Russian-Syrian citizen has been buying oil from ISIS and selling it to the Syrian regime - Erdogan said this was confirmed by U.S. sources. Why did Ankara not reveal such evidence before?

The Middle East’s politics and the international handling of the region’s extraordinary affairs bear a certain resemblance to black-market gambling. There are no regularities or logical flow of incidents

Raed Omari

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Turkey of buying ISIS oil, but has not said how ISIS fuel transporters are able to travel through his war-torn country toward the border with Turkey.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has also entered this accusation ‘scene,’ saying most ISIS oil goes through Turkey, but he did not mention that it must have originated from Syria or Iraq.

The United States has said significant volumes of ISIS oil have been sold to the Assad regime, with some finding its way to Turkey. Why did Washington’s explanation only come after the eruption of the Russian-Turkish war of words?

But there is indeed a big question mark in all the charges each party has leveled against the other. In the case of Russia, the suspicion is over the very purpose of its large-scale military operations in Syria. If the Russians’ military build-up in northwestern Syria is to fight ISIS, as announced by the Kremlin, then why they did they wait this long to uncover the Turkish businesses with the ultra-radical group? And why did they wait until their fighter jet was downed by the Turks? Again, the answer for such mysterious questions lies in Moscow’s real objectives behind securing a military presence in Syria.

Whispered accusations

Turkey’s accusations have no doubt come in reaction to the Russian’s claims. For a long time, Turkey had been under suspicion of facilitating the entry of fighters to Syria, or being lax about the issue. But the accusations were whispered and never publicly talked about in part due to lack of evidence and also as they contradict Ankara’s anti-ISIS position. Regardless of the authenticity of Ankara’s accusations, what is indisputable is that they came as a reaction to Moscow’s claims. Erdogan might not have said what he said if his ‘war of words’ with Putin would have never erupted.

Assad, who is accused of buying ISIS’s oil, accused Turkey because his ally Putin did. In fact, Assad’s testimony mattered, but I am sure it fell on deaf ears simply because Syria is no longer a sovereign state.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s accusation to Turkey came only after Ankara’s deployment of forces near the ISIS-held city of Mosul and never before which, in fact, puts its authenticity on the line. But Abadi did not accuse Syria of buying ISIS oil or at least blame it for allowing the group to use its territory to smuggle it to Turkey. Were Iran and Russia in his mind when he said what he said? Seemingly yes.

No logic

Also remarkable was the U.S. announcement on illegal trade with ISIS. Washington was seemingly trying to ease off the tension between Moscow and Ankara in its cautiously-worded statement, saying there was “some” oil delivered to Ankara and “much” to Syria. If the Ankara-Moscow tension had not erupted, the U.S. Treasury Department official Adam Szubin’s statement would probably have never been made.

At the end, it is either that one of party or multiple ones really buy oil from ISIS or that is how Middle Eastern politics is managed and shaped – no certainties and logic. In both cases, it is disastrous and scandalous. The truth about ISIS’s oil business is now lost in who is receiving it, at the expense why and how.

The Middle East’s politics and the international handling of the region’s extraordinary affairs bear a certain resemblance to black-market gambling. There are no regularities or logical flow of incidents. As such, people should not be blamed if they link the rise of ISIS to a conspiracy theory and state sponsorship. Many conspiracy theories can be drawn from the Middle East’s politics and history.

But traces of black-market policies are in fact clear there in Syria, Turkey and on their borders – and of course, in Iraq and Iran until proven otherwise.

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Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via raed_omari1977@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.