BEIRUT: The Syrian conflict escalated to a stark confrontation between powerhouses Russia and Turkey Friday, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying Russian military equipment found aboard a Syria-bound plane was bound for the Syrian armed forces.
Moscow denied the claim and shot back, accusing Ankara of endangering the lives of Russian passengers when it intercepted the jet late Wednesday.
The grounding of the plane was another sign of Ankara’s growing assertiveness toward the crisis in Syria. Turkey’s chief of staff warned Wednesday the military would use greater force if Syrian shells continued to land in Turkey.
“These were equipment and ammunitions that were being sent from a Russian agency ... to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara.
“Their examination is continuing and the necessary [action] will follow,” he added.
Yeni Safak, a newspaper close to the Turkish government, reported Thursday that there were 10 containers aboard the plane whose contents included radio receivers, antennas and equipment “thought to be missile parts.”
Turkish state-run television TRT also reported the plane was carrying military communications equipment. Neither TRT nor the newspaper cited sources for their claims.
The plane was allowed to continue to Damascus after several hours, without the cargo.
Erdogan refused to say how – or from whom – Turkey had learned that the twice-weekly scheduled flight would be used to transport military gear to Syria.
Russia, a top ally of the Damascus regime and its biggest arms supplier, said Ankara had put the lives of passengers at risk by forcing it to land in the Turkish capital.
“We are concerned that this emergency situation put at risk the lives and safety of passengers, who included 17 Russian citizens,” said a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich.
“The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation of the reasons for such actions by the Turkish authorities,” he added.
He said the Turkish authorities failed to inform the Russian Embassy in Ankara that there were Russian citizens on board, adding that the passengers had to spend eight hours on the plane without food and were not permitted to go inside the airport.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry responded by summoning the Russian ambassador and issued a statement saying that the pilot of the Syrian Air plane from Moscow had been warned of Turkey’s intention to ground it as he approached from the Black Sea Wednesday evening. The statement said passengers were allowed to leave the plane if they wanted and that there was a medical crew and ambulances on standby.
The statement said the pilot was given the chance to turn back, but that he decided to continue his course, adding that he did not provide a passenger list and therefore Turkish officials did not know there were Russians on board until after it landed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had been expected to visit Turkey at the start of next week but Turkish officials said hours before the plane was grounded that Russia had requested the visit be postponed, citing his heavy work schedule.
Separately, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it had submitted a formal protest note to Syria over the violation of civil aviation rules and declared Syrian airspace unsafe for Turkish planes.
Syria accused Turkey of “lying’ about the weapons find and branded the interception of its plane an act of piracy, demanding that Turkey return the seized cargo.
“This hostile and deplorable Turkish act is an additional indication of the hostile policy of Erdogan’s government,” Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, accusing Ankara of “harboring terrorists” and allowing them to infiltrate Syria.
The general manager of the Syrian Civil Aviation Agency also blasted Turkey’s forced landing of the plane, calling it “contrary to regulations and aviation norms.”
Ghaidaa Abdul-Latif told reporters in Damascus that the plane’s pilots were not asked to land but were instead surprised by Turkish F-16 fighter jets, which forced them to land.The Moscow airport that cleared the Syrian plane for takeoff denied there was any banned cargo on board. “No objects whose transportation would have been forbidden under aviation regulations were on board,” said Vnukovo Airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova, ITAR-Tass reported.
As tensions soared, the United States said it backed Turkey’s decision to intercept the plane. “Any transfer of any military equipment to the Syrian regime at this time is very concerning, and we look forward to hearing more from the Turkish side when they get to the bottom of what they found,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
She declined to comment on Turkish reports that the intelligence on the plane’s cargo had come from the United States.
Turkey, which is hosting some 30,000 Syrian refugees along with military members of the Syrian opposition, has boosted its troop presence along the 900-kilometer Syrian border and returned fire in response to shelling from northern Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s forces have been battling rebels.
Chief of Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel said Wednesday his troops would respond “with greater force” if Syrian shelling continued and parliament last week authorized the deployment of troops outside Turkish territory.
Some 25 fighter planes were sent to a military base in the southern city of Diyarbakir, around 100 kilometers from the Syrian border, Monday, the Dogan news agency said. Turkey has made clear that beyond retaliation it has no appetite for unilateral intervention in Syria.
Turkey relies on Russia both for energy needs and to help realize its ambitions to be a hub for energy supplies to Europe.
The Syrian rebels, who now control swathes of territory along the Turkish border are seeking to secure a buffer zone in the northwestern province of Idlib, and this week won control of the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan on the highway linking Damascus to second city Aleppo.
But the establishment of foreign-protected safe zones would also be hazardous, with the exit strategy for foreign forces dependent on the Syrian opposition’s ability to topple Assad.
In Damascus, a blast in the Mazzeh district of western Damascus targeted the military justice building which is near the Higher Education Ministry.
State television reported “a bomb exploded near the Higher Education Ministry” and that two people were wounded in the “terrorist attack.”