Turkey and Russia spar over Syria flight

Ankara comes under fire from Russia when Moscow accused it of endangering Russian lives over commandeered Syrian plane.

Syrian plane diverted to Turkey 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syrian plane diverted to Turkey 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 plane.
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 airspace.”
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.
Indeed, 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 the border.”
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 treaties.”
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 says.
Turkey, consequently, is finding itself in a difficult position.
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 consequences.
“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 boundaries.
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.”