In an act that exacerbated already high tensions with Syria, Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane with 30 passengers on board, traveling from Moscow to war-torn Damascus, to land and be searched at an Ankara airport on Wednesday on the suspicion that it was transporting weapons through Turkish airspace.
Syria branded the incident piracy and Russia called the search illegal, while Turkish media has reported that the seized cargo included missile components, radio receivers, antennas and other Russian-made ammunition destined for Syria’s Ministry of Defense. Finally, on Thursday, Turkey issued a diplomatic note to Syria saying that the plane was carrying “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules.”
Although a great deal of criticism has been leveled against the forced landing, Milliyet’s Fikret Bila says it was perfectly in line with the law for Turkey to make the Syrian plane land based on the intelligence received and to carry out a proper search. He explained that Ankara had warned the Syrian plane, which Turkey had been informed was carrying non-civilian materials, as the plane approached -- but had not yet entered -- Turkey’s Flight Information Region (FIR), telling the pilot that if the plane entered Turkish airspace, it would be required to land at Ankara’s Esenboğa Airport for a search. According to Foreign Ministry officials, Bila says, the pilot had two options. He could either turn back and stay out of Turkish airspace or agree to the search. As it happened, the pilot chose to land and was escorted by Turkish F-16 jets into Ankara.
That being said, according to Bila, it should be considered normal for Turkey to display such sensitivity at a time when there has been artillery fire exchanged across the Turkish-Syrian border for some time. Additionally, it would have been a huge risk for Turkey to ignore the intelligence it had received at a time when Turkey and Syria are taking all measures to prevent a possible war between them.
On the other hand, the fact that the plane departed from Moscow prompted Akşam columnist Deniz Ülke Arıboğan to question and worry about the future of relations between Turkey and Russia, long at odds over the Syrian conflict. Although the plane was Syrian, the fact that it was carrying Russian passengers and its cargo was loaded in Moscow make Russia an interlocutor in this issue. The ammunition found on the plane is to Russia’s disadvantage as it suggests that Russia was secretly sending weapons with a civilian plane, a realization that will harm the legitimacy of Russia’s stance on the Syrian issue, the columnist notes.