Turkey came under fire from Russia Thursday when Moscow accused it of
endangering Russian lives, a day after the Turkish military commandeered a
Syrian plane and forced it to land in Ankara.
The pointed words from
Russia’s Foreign Ministry, the diplomatic equivalent of shouting, evinced a yet
further escalation of the conflict as Syria’s civil war grinds on and gradually
spills beyond its borders.
Although at issue appears to be one civilian
Syrian airplane that was forced by Turkish fighter jets to land Wednesday night
en route to Damascus, the plane is actually a symbol of the larger forces at
play. Russia has been supporting the Syrian regime politically but also
militarily, analysts say, though both countries deny there were any arms on the
Turkish leaders, however, insist that the Airbus A-320, which was
carrying between 30 and 35 passengers from Moscow late Wednesday, was also
carrying arms to help Syrian President Bashar Assad fight rebels who have been
waging a 19-month insurrection against his rule.
“They are equipment and
munitions sent for the Syrian Defense Ministry from a Russian institution” which
is the equivalent to Turkey’s state arms manufacturer, Turkish Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told a televised news conference in Ankara. He said a
further inspection of the cargo was taking place.
Turkish Deputy Prime
Minister Bekir Bozdag said earlier Thursday that Turkey would not be the conduit
for “shipments of arms to the dirty war in Syria,” according to Turkey’s
Anatolia news agency.
The country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu,
said Syria was a regime committing “brutal massacres against civilians,” and
added, “It is unacceptable that such a transfer is made using our
In Turkey, public sentiment is largely against getting
involved in the war in Syria. But most feel Turkey was justified in the move to
take down the plane, in part because Syria abused Turkish airspace to traffic
weapons, following a week of violent volleys along their border.
missing from Russia’s condemnation of Turkey’s actions is any hint of clarity of
its policy toward Syria.Western and Turkish officials suggest Russia is
continuing to arm the Alawite regime to help it keep strategic superiority over
the rebels. Turkey, for its part, has acknowledged its opposition to the Syrian
regime and is openly harboring Syrian rebel and opposition leaders. There are
some reports that Ankara has also been supplying small weaponry, though these
have been impossible to confirm.
“Russia cannot or will not give a direct
response to questions about its behavior. They are running a clandestine policy
toward Syria, and then they respond in a cowardly way against Turkey – showing
they are angry but not acknowledging what was on the plane,” says Nihat Ali
Özcan, an analyst in Ankara at TEPAV, the Economic and Policy Research
Foundation of Turkey.
The war in Syria has grown increasingly worrisome
for Turkey for many reasons. More than 96,000 refugees from Syria have streamed
across the border, the highest number in the Middle East. Turkey fears that
Kurdish rebels have taken advantage of the porous border, and military groups
such as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) have stepped up their anti-Turkish
activities in the past two months. Finally, the war has had an effect on the
Turkish economy, and is expected to impact tourism because holiday-makers will
stay away, says Özcan.
“It’s a long border, there is no control over it
at the moment and the economic situation is getting worse,” Özcan said. “In the
midterm, there are a lot of jihadist groups coming in because of the fighting in
Syria. Long term, it’s a big problem for Turkey. The central government in Syria
is losing their power, and so these radical groups can gain, especially along
Jihad Makdissi, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in
a statement that the plane wasn’t carrying any weapons or illegal cargo, and
that Turkey’s actions were indicative of its “hostile” attitude towards Syria.
Lebanon’s Al Manar television quoted Syria’s Transport Minister Mahmoud Saeed as
saying Turkey’s move amounted to “air piracy which contradicts civil aviation
Russia’s censure of Turkey must be put into perspective, says
Jonathan Spyer, a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International
Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya.
“Turkey is under intense criticism from
Russia, but the most important thing to remember is that Russia is the main arms
supplier and the main ally of the Assad regime. It’s the Russians that have been
backing them and using their veto at the UN Security Council,” Spyer
Turkey, consequently, is finding itself in a difficult
Although much of the international community has given
lip-service to the goal of seeing the end of Assad’s regime, few are taking
action to make that happen – and few live close enough to be faced with the
“The Turks have been supporting the rebels, and are now
finding themselves alone in the field,” Spyer said. “It’s easy for the Syrians
to see that, and so now they’re being quite disrespectful of Turkey’s
A political nightmare would be for Turkey to see itself drawn
into a war with Syria, not as part of a coalition or with clear Western backing,
but completely on its own.”