“The intercepted plane incident is a message to the countries that are intensively involved in the Syrian crisis, including Russia, China and Iran. After the incident, neither Russia nor China will consider Turkish airspace as easy passage. Therefore, this incident will pave the way for the isolation of the Syrian regime,” Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from Abant İzzet Baysal University, told Sunday’s Zaman.
In the latest blow to the already strained ties between the two neighbors, a Syrian Air Airbus A320 traveling from Moscow to Syria’s capital was intercepted by F16 jets as it entered Turkish airspace and was escorted to Ankara’s Esenboğa Airport on Wednesday.
After inspecting the cargo, Turkish officials announced that the plane was carrying Russian-made ammunitions destined for Syria’s defense ministry.
According to Ayhan, if Turkey closes its airspace not only to military planes, but also to civilian planes travelling to Syria, this would mean isolating Syria from its supporters, Russia, Iran and China.
Despite the escalating pressure from the international community, Russia and China are the two closest remaining allies to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blocking tougher UN resolutions against Damascus.
“The plane incident doesn’t only bother Turkey and Syria, but Russia also. In fact, Russia has an important role in the Syrian crisis,” Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, the head of Ankara’s International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), told Sunday’s Zaman.
The Syrian plane incident 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. Turkey has reinforced its border with artillery weapons and also deployed more fighter jets to an air base close to the border.
From now on, Turkey should avoid taking the wrong steps in the Syrian crisis, said Erol, adding that Turkey is not the sole actor in finding a solution to the crisis. “Turkey portrays itself as the key actor in the Syrian crisis but neither Turkey nor Syria are the sole actors in this crisis. Russia, China and Iran cannot be neglected. Turkey should stop acting independently and should cooperate with Russia, China and Iran as it does with the US,” said Erol.
Following the incident, the US strongly supported Turkey’s move to inspect the Syrian plane, saying the transfer of any military equipment to the Syrian regime at this time was very concerning.
The revolt in Syria has dragged on for far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising, partly because of Assad’s unwillingness to meet the demands of the Syrian people, but also because of the support of global powers including Russia.
“By intercepting a civilian plane travelling from Moscow to Damascus, Turkey doesn’t only shows its limits to Syria but also to Russia,” Kaan Dilek, general coordinator of the International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR) told Sunday’s Zaman.
Following the plane incident, Syria demanded reparations for the material seized by Turkish authorities, while Turkey issued a diplomatic note to Syria, on the grounds that the plane was carrying “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules.”
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday the plane was carrying Russian-made ammunitions destined for Syria’s defense ministry, but he declined to name the source of the intelligence obtained by Turkey on the presence of non-civilian cargo on the plane.
“Turkey obtained reliable intelligence and used it against Damascus. With this incident the pressure on the Syrian regime will increase,” said Erol.
Erdoğan said a report that includes details on the seized material and the intended recipient of the cargo is being prepared by officials. However, he did reveal that the Syrian Defense Ministry appears to be the buyer of the confiscated materials, according to documents found on the plane.
“The vital question is why Russia, which has the legal right to carry military arms to Syria, preferred to carry these arms by civilian plane?” said Dilek.
According to Dilek, every sovereign state has the legal right to assess the intelligence obtained. “Basically, there are some question marks regarding Turkey’s Syria policy. Due to these question marks, it becomes hard for us to assess Turkey’s move in this incident. This incident pushes us to think beyond the information provided to us,” said Dilek.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said 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. Davutoğlu 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.
“With the incident, it became inevitable for Russia to investigate its intelligence gap,” said Dilek.
Davutoğlu also 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.
Dilek also maintained that it would not be realistic for Turkey to damage its relations with other countries, including Russia and Iran, due to the crisis with Syria.
As tensions mount between Turkey and its southern neighbor, in fear of Syrian retaliation, Turkish authorities have declared Syrian airspace to be unsafe and have prohibited Turkish aircraft from flying over the war-torn country.