Iranian and Turkish media have pushed conspiracy theories about the US-led coalition and the defeat of Islamic State in Syria. As the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the main partner of the coalition in the anti-ISIS battle – defeats ISIS in Syria, both Ankara and Tehran appear to have a different narrative.
Iran has sought to highlight US "support" for ISIS in the past and claimed that Iran played the main role in its defeat. ISIS would have overrun Europe if not for Iran, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said on Sunday. Last year, Turkey argued that ISIS was no longer a threat and that the US was prolonging the war needlessly.
Iran's Press TV claimed last week that local sources had told them that the "US [is] giving Daesh [ISIS] a safe passage in east Syria under a gold deal." The "local source" was actually the Syrian regime's SANA media. "The gold has been carried away from the province's Al-Baghouz area on board helicopters," Iran's media claimed. In return for the gold, the US allowed ISIS ringleaders to escape. The report also included a link to another report claiming that the US had "evacuated" ISIS militants and their families from Baghuz.
Still, Press TV carried another story on February 28, claiming that "protected by the US, Daesh leader al-Baghdadi is traveling across Iraq's western desert." The source for this was allegedly an Iraqi lawmaker named Hassan Salem. "He is being provided with US support at Anbar's Ain al-Assad military base and is traveling freely between Iraq and Syria," Salem was quoted as saying.
An element of the same report about gold being transported showed up in Turkey's pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper. The "US army transported 50 tons of gold from Syria," the report said.
According to this account, the original source was Bas News Agency, a Kurdish channel. "US forces transferred about 50 tons of gold from areas seized from Daesh terrorists in eastern Syria's Deir al-Zour region and gave a portion of the remaining gold to the PKK's Syrian offshoot the People's Protection Units (YPG)."
The Turkish article also claimed that "local sources," the same ones who had spoken to SANA, had information that "large boxes containing Saesh's gold treasure from the al-Dashisheh region" had been put on trucks and taken to a US military base in Kobani. The strange amount of 40 tons of "gold bullions [were] stolen by Daesh terrorists from Iraq's Mosul province [and] was also taken by US forces," the report said. It wasn't entirely clear if the 40 tons was in addition to the 50 tons mentioned in the Iranian report.
However, the SANA report did not include any specific amounts of gold. The report by the new agency from February 26 claimed that "Washington gets tens of tons of gold" in exchange for providing the safe passage "for terrorists and their leaders." According to the Damascus regime media, the tens of tons were added to "other tons of gold" that the US found in various ISIS hideouts, and noted that this totaled "50 tons, leaving only scraps for the SDF militias that serve [the Americans]." SANA media then said that there were 40 tons of gold still in Baghuz, where the siege was taking place and added that US helicopters were looting the "spoils." All of these stories may have been borrowed from the Hollywood 1999 film Three Kings, which involved the search by US soldiers for "gold bullion" allegedly stolen from Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's army in 1990.
The conspiracies, which are manufactured in Damascus, are disseminated to Iraq and Turkey, both of whom oppose US policy in eastern Syria. They are then used to paint the US role in fighting ISIS as revolving around other concerns, such as monetary gain. Iran and its allies have often portrayed the US role in Iraq and Syria as supporting ISIS, rather than fighting it. For example, PressTV ran a headline on February 25 claiming that the US was involved in the "rearing of Daesh." Turkish media also tends to cast doubt on the US, specifically over its role in Syria and accuse it of supporting the PKK, which Ankara says is linked to the YPG and SDF. According to this narrative, the US seeks excuses to remain in Syria, thereby prolonging the war with ISIS.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.