(FT) Russia is demanding an explanation from Turkey over its detention on Wednesday of a Syrian civilian airplane en route from Moscow to Damascus with Russian citizens on board.
Turkey said its F-16 fighter jets had made the aircraft break its journey from Moscow to Damascus and land at Ankara airport on suspicion that it was transporting weapons from Russia to the Assad regime. Reuters reported on Thursday that the aircraft and its passengers had been allowed to continue their flight after parts of the cargo had been seized.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that Turkish authorities had refused to grant Russian diplomatic staff access to 17 Russian citizens on board during the eight hours that the flight was held up.
“The Russian side is insisting on an explanation of the reasons for such actions by the Turkish authorities,” the statement said. It said that “the lives and safety of the passengers were placed under threat” by the incident.
The incident occurred as the already tense confrontation between Ankara and Damascus became still more grave. It came after Turkey threatened to step up its retaliation for a barrage of cross-border shelling by Syria.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkish foreign minister, told Turkish state television on Wednesday that the aircraft, which was carrying about 30 passengers, was forced to land because of information that it may have carried “certain equipment in breach of civil aviation rules”. He added that Turkey was determined to stop “weapons transfers to a regime that brutally massacres civilians”.
A person knowledgeable about the search told the Financial Times that equipment that could be considered arms parts had been discovered and seized. Some Turkish media reported that missile parts had been discovered on the aircraft and that several large crates had been removed.
It also emerged that the Turkish government had forbidden Turkish flights from travelling in Syrian airspace because of the risk involved and a possible Syrian response. One aircraft carrying Turkish pilgrims to Saudi Arabia from Bursa airport landed at Adana airport in Turkey because of the new restriction.
The incident could increase tensions between Turkey and Russia, its neighbour, which has backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while Ankara supports the Syrian rebels.
Turkish media reported earlier in the day that Vladimir Putin, Russian president, had postponed a trip to Turkey scheduled for next week – a trip Ankara had seen as an opportunity to try to persuade Moscow to dilute its support for Mr Assad.
Syria is not subject to a UN arms embargo – partly because Russia and China have vetoed UN Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime. Nonetheless, Turkey has announced unilateral sanctions against any use of its land or airspace for the transport of weapons for the regime, although it is widely thought to allow arms shipments to the rebels.
Russia has rejected previous allegations that it is supplying Syria with offensive weaponry, rebuffing claims by Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, that it was providing Damascus with armed helicopters. However, it says it has provided Syria with anti-aircraft systems for legitimate defence reasons.
The news about the Syrian jet came on a day in which Turkey threatened to step up its retaliation to cross-border attacks by Syria after six days – ending on Monday – in which Syrian shells landed in Turkey, with Ankara returning fire.
“If this continues we will respond with greater force,” said General Necdet Özel, the Turkish chief of staff, during a visit to Akçakale, a border town where five people were killed by a Syrian shell last week in the incident that triggered the retaliation.
Turkey has already said that if any more shells hit its territory the retaliation will be twice as great, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, questioning how the repeated shelling of Turkish territory can be merely the result of mistakes by Syrian armed forces.
Opinion polls show that a majority of Turks both oppose war and disapprove of Mr Erdogan’s stance on Syria, which has seen him actively campaign against the Assad regime as Turkey becomes a hub for the political and military opposition as well as home to about 100,000 refugees.
But analysts say that in the event of another deadly shelling attack, the Turkish prime minister would have little option but to strike back harder. “You just can’t have another incident like those five people who were killed,” said Henri Barkey at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
He also emphasised, however, that opposition to war was deeply entrenched. “The image of Turks fighting in the Middle East is wholly contrary to the idea of the country as a paragon of stability,” he said.
Editors Note: This could be considered an act of war on Turkeys part against Russia to ground an airliner with Russian citizens on board. It could be called air piracy, even though Turkey’s reason could be legitimate. How will Russia react to this offence remains to be seen. Turkey has the backing of NATO, so any attack against them by Russia would literally be WWIII. Turkey has clearly established a no fly zone over its country causing this middle east war to enlarge itself country by country day by day it seems. How much longer before the big boys start trading punches remains to be seen. Ticktock, ticktock…