Obama, Putin Agree on Bombing IS Oil Pipeline

Obama, Putin Agree on Bombing IS Oil PipelineObama, Putin Agree on Bombing IS Oil Pipeline

When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with US President Barack Obama in Turkey on Sunday to discuss the terrorist attacks in Paris, he brought along some photos.

The satellite images showed rows of trucks laden with Islamic State oil stretching into the Syrian horizon, a person familiar with matter said. Putin’s point was that US bombing alone cannot eliminate the vast smuggling network that provides much of the extremist group’s funding.

Obama was already well into a stepped-up campaign against the group’s oil resources and that night US aircraft destroyed 116 tankers hauling crude from seized fields. The raid, the largest of its kind since US military action in Syria started last year, happened to coincide with a new phase of Russia’s assault on the same nexus, Bloomberg News reported.

While Obama has publicly refused Putin’s offer to coordinate, their actions have started to align since the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt and the carnage in France, indicating movement toward a more robust alliance against terrorism.

“After the events in Paris and over the skies of Sinai, the EU and the US are showing greater willingness to support Russia’s idea of forming a common front to fight IS,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday.

In Putin’s meeting with Obama, the Russian president “stressed the need” to step up the fight against IS’s oil business.

A united front would be bad news not just for IS, but for everyone they do business with. The US and Russia are both widening their target lists to include the middlemen who help the group make money off illicit oil sales. While the US has struck refineries and other oil targets held by IS in Syria and Iraq more than 260 times since last summer, only now is it starting to hit links in the chain operated mainly by civilians, according to UK research group Chatham House and Washington-based Foreign Reports Inc.

  Galvanizing Attacks

The US is hoping the Paris bloodbath “will galvanize others to do even more” in the effort against terrorism, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Tuesday, according to the Pentagon.

Putin is doing just that. This week, Russian warplanes, backed by increased satellite capabilities, started to “free hunt” vehicles illegally transporting fuel in IS areas. They destroyed around 500 trucks over several days, the Defense Ministry said in a statement, without saying exactly when the attacks occurred.

Russian Tu-22 long-range bombers carried out strikes on Thursday against oil infrastructure controlled by IS in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. The latter produces around two-thirds of the group’s oil revenue, according to the Pentagon.

The planes destroyed three large refining complexes and a crude transport facility, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on its website.

While the ministry in Moscow declined to comment on whether the US and Russia are cooperating on the ground, a Russian official said on condition of anonymity that some coordination has started at an operational level.

  French Carrier

France, too, is preparing to escalate its assault on the IS, which has been concentrated on the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa.

The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had set off from the Mediterranean port of Toulon, boosting the number of jets available for strikes to 48 from 12. French President Francois Hollande is due to meet his US and Russian counterparts in Washington and Moscow next week to discuss coordinating actions.

The US may have delayed attacking fuel convoys in the past because its initial priority was to destroy targets directly controlled by IS and more central to the production process, according to Valerie Marcel, an associate fellow at Chatham House. It hit depots and makeshift refineries first, which forced the group to sell crude “directly at the wellhead” and ended most of its sales into Turkey’s lucrative black market, she said.

  Terrorist Funding

IS could be earning $500 million a year from its oil trade, according to officials at the US Department of the Treasury—five times as much as US intelligence officials estimated last year.

Its oil facilities withstood last year’s strikes better than thought, returning to action after just a couple of days, US Army Colonel Steve Warren said on Nov. 13.

The US and its allies continue to face a difficult balancing act, attempting to pinpoint airstrikes that will cripple refineries and other facilities for a year or more but not wipe them out because that would remove a critical resource for Syria’s postwar future.