Turkey grounds Armenian plane in growing de facto air blockade of Syria

A week after raising Russian ire by grounding a plane traveling from Russia to Syria, Turkey grounded an Armenian airliner – this time in a routine check arranged in a recently inked agreement. 

The Armenian plane that was forced to land, at Erzurum Airport, eastern Turkey, Monday, Oct. 15, 2012. Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman says Turkish authorities are searching the cargo of an Armenian plane bound for Syria.

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A week after Turkey forced down a Syrian passenger jet allegedly carrying illegal cargo, irking Russia and Syria, Turkey has brought down an Armenian aircraft for inspection in an apparent expansion of a de facto air blockade of Syria from the north.

The Turkish deputy prime minister said today that the Armenian plane, which was reportedly carrying humanitarian aid, passed inspection and was allowed to continue on to Syria, reports Reuters. Unlike the earlier Syrian flight from Moscow, Armenian officials had been informed ahead of time that the aircraft would be subject to inspection, Turkish officials told Reuters. Armenian officials confirmed this to news agency Armenpress.

The plane's grounding appears to be part of an expansion of Turkish efforts to do what it can to prevent weapons from reaching the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Over the weekend, Turkey and Syria each banned the other's aircraft from its own airspace.

Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reports that Armenia and Turkey previously agreed that Armenia would provide humanitarian aid for Syria as long as it allowed Turkey to do a routine security check on every Syria-bound Armenian plane (the most direct flight path between Armenia and Syria passes over eastern Turkey). Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan said the grounding was "nothing extraordinary." 

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also slammed the United Nations Security Council over the weekend for failing to act on the Syrian crisis in accord with what he says is the world's popular will, writes The Guardian. Mr. Erdogan said that if the council was unable to reach agreement on what to do about Syria because of the opposition of one or two parties to intervention – a thinly veiled reference to Russia and China, which have both vetoed previous Security Council resolutions on Syria – the body should be reformed.

"If we leave the issue to the vote of one or two members of the permanent five at the United Nations security council, then the aftermath of Syria will be very hazardous and humanity will write it down in history with unforgettable remarks," Erdogan said. "It's high time to consider a structural change for international institutions, especially for the UN security council."

The situation in Syria has strained ties between Turkey and Russia, whose relations have been warming since the end of the cold war.  Although Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Voice of Russia that Turkish-Russian relations are "developing on a firm and solid basis," Russia's intransigent support for the Assad regime is at odds with Turkey and much of the world. This may be due to Russian President Vladimir Putin's personal suspicions of the West, The Christian Science Monitor reported last week.

"Russia's ongoing support for Assad is totally ideological," says [Alexander Golts, military columnist for the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal]. "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."

The Monitor also notes that despite Russia's insistence that there were no weapons on board the Syrian plane, the legal situation regarding the jet's grounding remain murky.

"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.

In addition, Russia's argument that there were no weapons on board may be beside the point. According to Article 35 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, of which almost every UN member – including Russia, Syria, and Turkey – are signatories, "No munitions of war or implements of war may be carried in or above the territory of a State in aircraft engaged in international navigation, except by permission of such State."

The convention does not define the terms "munitions of war or implements of war," but rather leaves them to be defined by each state per its own regulations.

As a result, while Russia may be correct that the Syrian passenger plane was transporting only radar parts – reportedly for an anti-aircraft system – and not weapons or ammunition, those parts may still run afoul of international law.  While weapons and ammo are undeniably "munitions of war," Turkey could argue that an anti-aircraft radar can also be considered an "implement of war," as its purpose is solely military (if defensive).

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