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Syrian airliner spat sours improving Turkish-Russian relations

Turkey's grounding of a Syrian plane allegedly carrying weapons from Moscow to Damascus has put Moscow and Ankara – which have been cooperating in recent years – at odds.

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"With that story about the helicopters, and now this, we have to assume that US intelligence has very good channels of information in Russia," says Alexander Golts, military columnist for the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

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"This has got to be the cause of considerable worry," in the Russian secret services, he adds.

Kommersant's sources insisted that the components aboard the Syrian jetliner were not arms, and that it was perfectly legal to carry radio equipment on a civil airliner if it was shut off.  "It is not weaponry. What is the problem about carrying a switched-off radio receiver on board an airliner, if it does not represent any threat to the plane or passengers?" one official told the newspaper.

"We did not violate any international laws," said another.

The newspaper also quoted Vyacheslav Davidenko, the spokesman of Russia's official arms export agency Rosoboronexport, as saying that "there was no cargo belonging to us" aboard the plane.

On Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan  justified the plane's takedown saying "one cannot carry defense industry equipment or arms, munitions (aboard) civilian aircraft.... Unfortunately this rule was violated."

Vladimir Sazhin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow says the legalities of the situation are murky on both sides.

"Russia's position is that it's illegal to force a plane to land in this way. It's only done if an aircraft diverges from its assigned route or it represents a threat to the country it's flying over," he says.

"On the other hand, it does seem that if the plane was carrying radar parts from air defense systems, as reported, then that's a military cargo that shouldn't be hauled aboard a civilian plane. Now it's up to lawyers to sort it out," he adds.

Mr. Golts says that selling arms to Syria is not illegal – as Russian officials have repeatedly underscored – because no such sanctions have been passed by the UN Security Council.

Many Russian experts argue that it's difficult to take Turkish indignation seriously, since Turkey allows its territory to be used as a staging area and supply conduit by Syrian rebels.

Golts adds that the Kremlin's stubborn and consistent backing for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is out of step with much of the world community.

"Russia's ongoing support for Assad is totally ideological," says Golts. "Putin is certain that all this turmoil with the Arab Spring is the result of a CIA conspiracy, and he sees it as his personal duty to struggle against it."

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