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Turkey forced a Damascus-bound passenger plane suspected of ferrying Russian weapons to Syria to land at an Ankara airport yesterday, just hours after a Turkish military commander said Turkey would respond more strongly to Syrian bombardments in its territory.
The Syrian-owned Airbus A-320 passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus and carrying 30 passengers was grounded last night based on intelligence that it was shuttling “non-civilian cargo,” reports Reuters.
Syria accused Turkey of “air piracy” following the incident, Lebanon’s al-Manar TV quoted Syrian Transport Minister Mahoumd Said as saying, according to a separate Reuters report. The station quotes Mr. Said as saying that the landing “contradicts civil aviation treaties."
After a five-hour inspection and confiscation of cargo, Turkey allowed the plane to continue on to Syria, reports Russian news agency RIA Novosti. There have been varying accounts of what Turkey may have found on board, but no definitive statement from Turkish officials on what, if anything, they found.
"Some Turkish media reports stated that there were parts for radio stations used for military purposes, while NTV television channel said there was an object that could be a part of a missile," RIA Novosti reports.
The episode has escalated already heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been exchanging sporadic fire across their 566-mile shared border since last week, when a Syrian mortar killed five people in Turkey after several days of shelling. It is unclear if the original cross-border violence was intended or the result of misaimed shots.
The grounding of the aircraft also strains the relationship between Turkey and Russia. Moscow has been one of the few countries to stand by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the course of the 19-month conflict, and has used its veto power on the United Nations Security Council to block multiple resolutions that would have allowed stronger action against the regime, including laying the groundwork for international intervention.
The Financial Times reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed a scheduled trip to Turkey next week, which could have been an opportunity for Turkey to persuade Russia to temper its support for the Assad regime.
“If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way, not to mention using a civilian aircraft,” the official told Interfax. Because Russia hasn’t suspended its military-technological cooperation with Syria, there is no reason to avoid using official channels, the source noted.
Russian authorities demanded an explanation for the grounding of the flight, which was carrying 17 Russian passengers.
“Russia insists that the Turkish authorities must explain their conduct regarding Russian citizens and prevent similar incidents in the future,” Russian consulate spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said in a statement. “Turkish authorities denied without explanations and in violation of the bilateral consular convention a meeting of the diplomats with the Russian citizens."
Turkey had already stated it would not allow military or cargo planes carrying weapons into Syria to use its airspace, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said, according to Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News. Turkey said it would continue investigating Syrian civilian planes using its airspace in the future if needed.
"We exercised our rights, and we will exercise them again tomorrow if required," Transport Minister Binali Yildirim said.
Although Turkey is taking action to prevent Russian weapons from reaching the Syrian Army, its own border with Syria has become a conduit for weapons for the Syrian rebel forces, although the Guardian reports that the weapons and supplies are starting to become scarce.
The rivalries of Arab and Gulf politics, divisions between the west and Russia, fear of Syria's bloody crisis spreading beyond the country's borders to drag in Iran or Lebanon all make supplying arms to the rebels a sensitive and murky issue.
Now, it seems, the supply is drying up. On Aleppo's frontlines, there is still no sign of the heavy weapons for which the rebels have pleaded. Ammunition is running low. "They are giving us enough to keep this fight going, but not enough to win it," complained Abu Furat, a commander. "I'm sure that's not going to change until after the American elections. I'm not sure everyone can survive until then."
There is growing concern that tensions between Syria and Turkey could explode into a war between the two countries, even if neither country wants an open conflict. The Atlantic’s Robert Wight lists four reasons why the two countries could be moving in that direction, even if they don't want to. The Guardian sums them up:
1. Turkey could decide that war is preferable to the alternatives of an influx of more refugees and Kurds using the ongoing civil war to carve out an autonomous region in Syria.
2. A Turkish-Syrian war could draw the US into the conflict making such a move more attractive to some influential backers of American intervention.
3. Syria will continue attacking the Turkish border to stop the supply of weapons to rebels. "The Syrian regime is fighting for its life, and along the Turkish-Syrian border lies the lifeline of its enemy" Wright says.
4. In a way Turkey is already at war with the Syrian regime by supplying weapons to rebels.
But opinion polls show that the majority of Turks are opposed to going to war with Syria, and Turkish opposition to war is deeply entrenched, Lehigh University's Prof. Henri Barkey told the Financial Times – despite Ankara's recent claims that it would retaliate with greater force in the event of another deadly attack on Turkish soil.
“The image of Turks fighting in the Middle East is wholly contrary to the idea of the country as a paragon of stability,” Mr. Barkey said.