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December 10, 2012, Monday

Why didn’t Russia ask for the return of seized military equipment from Turkey?

Indications have increased that, as the clashes between regime forces and the opposition in Syria continue into their 20th month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's downfall is at long last drawing nearer. Syrian rebel operations launched last Friday near the capital's international airport in an attempt to cut off the regime's supplies is one of many indications that Assad's downfall is near.

Losing control of the airport would be a major blow to the regime, which has recently lost two air bases near the capital to opposition fighters.

In addition, Syrian opposition fighters shot down three Syrian warplanes, indicating their increased fighting capabilities and more sophisticated arms. The more that Syrian officers defect from the Assad's forces and join the opposition, the more advanced weapons the rebels obtain. The former Syrian officers also provide information to help rebels infiltrate into government military facilities more easily.

Another indication among many that Assad may go soon is the US's acceleration of consultations with many of its allies, including Turkey, to ready preparations in hopes of a less problematic transition after Assad's fall.

“We are in the end game,” said a Western diplomat in Ankara, adding that, related to the prospects of regime change in Syria, both the US and other coalition forces learned valuable lessons from the mistakes made in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He said the invasion of Iraq has triggered ongoing internal strife in this country.

One error in the hands of the US was the wholesale gutting of the Iraqi military after the invasion, said the diplomat, which as a result allowed ethnic strife to fester and weapons once belonging to the army to fall into the hands of illegal groups, including Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Western allies intend to avoid such mistakes in the case of Syria.

“There are a lot of discussions going on between the US and its allies on what to do with Syria to create a smooth transition the day after Assad goes. For example, setting up an international police force is being considered, with discussions involving Turkey over the possibility of transporting the vehicles and arms of such a police force through the İskenderun port in the south of the country,” said another Western diplomat.

Another indication of a faltering Assad regime is Russia's surprise decision to not request the return of the military equipment seized by Turkish authorities on Oct. 10 on a Syrian passenger plane that Ankara forced to land in the Turkish capital.

A Syrian Air Airbus A320 en route from Moscow to Syria was intercepted by Turkish F16s as it entered Turkish airspace. Turkish authorities grounded the plane on suspicion that it was carrying heavy weapons for use by government forces in Syria. Turkey said it found military communication equipment and authorities seized parts that could be used in missiles.

As a matter of fact, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Vladimir Ivanovski, holding a press conference on Nov. 30 prior to the visit of President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 3, made comments to bring to an end the issue, placing responsibility on Syria alone: “The equipment confiscated [by Turkey] aboard the Syrian plane contained spare parts of a radar belonging to an anti-aircraft facility. It will be better if we forget this unpleasant event as soon as possible. This equipment does not belong to Russia anymore. We charged its cost [from Syria] and thus we do not have any responsibility at all. The rest of the issue is something between Turkey and Syria.”

According to Western diplomats in Ankara, these remarks, as well the content of an alleged conversation between the Russian ambassador and Turkish Foreign Ministry officials, signal strongly that Russia is distancing itself from Assad.

This marks a shift in tone from the Russian ambassador, who on Oct. 10 rushed to the airport where the plane from Moscow was forced to land over grounds that he was concerned about the security of the Russian passengers on board. However, his concern was likely in fact over the contents of 10 boxes later seized onboard destined for the Syrian Defense Ministry from a Russian arms company.

Two months later, instead of asking for their return, Russia is now attempting to disassociate itself from the incident.

If Russia insisted on the return of the military equipment from Turkey, this would have demonstrated that the Kremlin was still backing Assad. Instead, Moscow has given a clear signal that it does not care about the items seized on the Syrian Air flight.

I hope indications and speculations that Assad's demise is nearing are not just wishful thinking, but that they soon turn out to be true.

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