Russia has released spectacular footage of what Kremlin officials claim to be a successful bombing campaign to destroy the Islamic State’s oil-smuggling rackets into Turkey.
At a briefing by the Russian ministry of defence in Moscow, generals produced videos and photographs of Russian warplanes pulverizing huge columns of oil tankers allegedly transporting oil for sale on the black market.
The Kremlin claimed to have destroyed 17 such truck columns in the past week alone – part of a Moscow-led onslaught against Isil’s oil rackets that Russia says has wiped out nearly 2,000 oil tankers since Russia directly entered the war in Syria in September.
The pictures were released to journalists by Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoy, a senior figure in Russian Armed Forces command, in a briefing apparently designed to be a mirror image to those conducted by the Pentagon in America.
He sat before a giant video screen showing aerial footage of the Russian attacks, which led to tankers being engulfed in plumes of thick black smoke.
However, experts questioned whether the Russian briefing was primarily a propaganda stunt designed to irritate Turkey, whose government is a leading opponent of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
After Turkey shot down a Russian bomber at the Syrian border last month, Moscow accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of involvement in the illegal oil trade with Isil. Mr Erdogan denies the claims and has said he will resign if they are ever proved true.
Russia’s defence ministry said that 12,000 trucks were seen their way to and from Turkey from the frontier point of Zakho, which lies close to Turkey’s borders with both Syria and northern Iraq.
The ministry said the route involved “a significant detour” to avoid previous Russian bombing efforts, but added that “Turkey remains the final point of the smuggling route.”
Eliot Higgins, a research associate at London’s Kings College who specialises in studying weapons deployed in the Syrian conflict, told The Telegraph: “The Russian MoD has lied repeatedly, so their word is worthless.”
Meanwhile, a United Nations-sponsored deal to evacuate more than 2,000 rebel fighters from rebel-held parts of south Damascus has been delayed after the death of a key rebel leader.
The deal – which would have included Isil fighter – would have gone through territory controlled by Zahran Alloush, the leader of the Jaysh al Islam rebel group, who died in Friday’s airstrike. Although a hardline Islamist, Alloush’s group were represented at recent peace talks on Syria’s future.
On Saturday it was reported that airstrikes had also targeted the man named as Alloush’s successor.
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said he hoped to begin new talks the Syrian government and the opposition in Geneva on January 25.