Turkey has shown how committed it is to making sure that civilians do not die at the hands of the oppressive Syrian regime when it forced a Damascus-bound passenger plane suspected of carrying non-civilian cargo to land in Ankara.
A Syrian Air Airbus A320 traveling from Moscow to the Middle Eastern country's capital was intercepted by F16 jets as it entered Turkish airspace and escorted to Ankara's Esenboğa Airport. As a result of the inspections, Turkish officials announced that material that could be used in military operations was found in the cargo section of the plane.
“Turkey obtained information regarding the existence of cargo that is not allowed under international civilian aviation rules,” Bekir Bozdağ, deputy prime minister, said in a television interview on Thursday.
According to the Convention on International Aviation, Article 35, civilian planes are not allowed, without the prior consent of the countries along its flight path, to carry any military communications equipment or arms, and countries have the right to check the cargo of a civilian plane if there is a strong suspicion of questionable material onboard. “If there is a strong reason for suspicion, a country has the right to inspect the content of the cargo on a civilian plane,” said İbrahim Kaya, an analyst from the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).
Syria has demanded reparations for the material seized by Turkish authorities, while the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ankara protested in a written statement on Thursday that Turkish authorities did not inform the embassy of the fact that there were Russian citizens onboard the plane, which was sent on to Damascus with 37 passengers and crew following the inspection.
The Information Bureau of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, in a written statement on Thursday, that the plane was informed by Turkish authorities, while flying over the Black Sea, that it would be required to land, giving the pilot the opportunity to change flight paths, but with the pilot having chosen to continue on as scheduled, it was forced to land at 17:15 local time in Ankara.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said in its statement that the pilot of the plane didn't provide any information regarding the nationality of the passengers on board, and that Turkish officials found out only a short time before the departure of the plane from Ankara from the Russian embassy that there were Russian passengers aboard. The ministry stressed that everything had been arranged to ensure the security of the passengers.
Birol Akgün from the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE), believes that by intercepting the plane Turkey showed how serious it is in regard to the crisis in Syria. “This is a signal to both Syria and third parties such as Russia and Iran in the crisis,” he told Today's Zaman, adding that the risk of war between the two countries is not negligible, considering that tensions are on the rise.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in an interview with a Turkish television station late on Wednesday that intelligence had suggested that the Syrian plane was carrying “non-civilian cargo” and “banned material,” adding that Turkey was within its rights under international law to investigate civilian planes suspected of carrying military communications devices or arms. The Turkish foreign minister also noted that the country would in stay in line with international law regarding whatever the inspectors found in the plane, while declining to name the source of the intelligence.
For İhsan Bal, head of Terrorism and Security Studies at USAK, Turkey's attitude is a display of firmness in its stance on the crisis in Syria. Describing the interception of the Syrian plane as an important step in this sense, “Should there be military equipment on the plane, then it should be expected that Turkey's relations with both Syrian and Russia deteriorate,” he told Today's Zaman.
Turkey's move came amid heightened tensions between Turkey and Syria, which have been exchanging artillery fire across their volatile border over the past week, after Parliament passed a motion allowing Turkey to send, if need be, Turkish troops into Syria. Necdet Özel, Chief of General Staff, also warned Syria, in a statement on Wednesday, that Turkey would retaliate in a more forceful way should shelling by the Syrian side keep landing inside Turkish territory.
Duygu Sezer from Doğuş University sees the incident as an escalation in the escalating crisis between Syria and Turkey. Speaking to Today's Zaman, “This was a move I hadn't expected,” she said, adding in concern that Turkey should not think of a military operation against Syria.
According to Onur Öymen, a former ambassador, Turkey has the right under international law to inspect a civilian plane suspected of carrying undeclared military cargo, but speaking to Today's Zaman he added: “Turkey needs to prove there is military material on the plane. Otherwise, relations with Russia could deteriorate.”
As tensions mount between Turkey and its southern neighbor, in fear of Syrian retaliation, Turkish authorities declared Syrian airspace to be unsafe and have prohibited Turkish aircraft from flying over the war-torn country. Turkish officials said the passengers were treated hospitably and given meals while the plane's cargo was inspected, but the Russian embassy claimed in its statement that the passengers were not offered any meals.
Russia is one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's closest remaining allies and has blocked tougher UN resolutions against Damascus. Davutoğlu dismissed claims suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin delayed his upcoming visit to Turkey due to the deepening division between Turkey and Russia over the festering Syrian conflict. He said he does not think the grounded Syrian plane will in any way harm Turkish-Russian relations, adding that Putin's scheduled arrival date had already been a tentative one and officials have fixed his date for November. Turkey has reinforced its border with artillery weapons and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border since shelling from Syria killed five Turkish civilians last week.