Syria has accused Turkey of “air piracy” after Turkish fighter jets on Wednesday forced a civilian Syrian aircraft to land in Ankara — an event that is likely to cement political ties among Syria, Russia, Iran and Iraq against Washington-backed Turkey.
Lebanon’s Al Manar television quoted Syria’s Transport Minister Mahmoud Saeed as saying Turkey’s move amounted to “air piracy which contradicts civil aviation treaties”. Turkey said it was driven by the suspicion that the aircraft that had taken off from Moscow was carrying military equipment — an allegation that Syria has staunchly denied. The aircraft, let off by Ankara, landed in Damascus on Thursday.
The incident seemed to reinforce the growing cohesion in the Syria-Russia-Iran-Iraq relationship. Earlier this week, Iraq raised eyebrows by signing a $4.2 billion weapons deal with Moscow. Before departing from Russia after the contract had been signed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on a visit to Moscow, warned Turkey not to exaggerate its differences with Syria and draw NATO into the simmering conflict.
But justifying Turkey’s decision, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Wednesday night during an interview with a Turkish network that the government had received intelligence that suggested the Syrian plane was carrying “non-civilian cargo” and “banned material”.
Some items have been confiscated, but officials were tight-lipped about the contents, Turkish daily Today’s Zaman reported on its website. It added that the seized cargo items were being investigated “but some Turkish newspapers said the cargo included non-lethal supplies such as radio equipment”.
Syrian authorities, already perturbed by the earlier cross-border firing by Turkish artillery, went ballistic and slammed Ankara for its unexpected move, after the aircraft had safely returned to Damascus.
The Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry stressed that “all contents of the Syrian passenger plane’s cargo had been registered in the bill of landing and in the load manifest”. Director of the Syrian Arab Airlines Ghaida Abdullatif accused Turkish authorities of assaulting members of the crew because they refused to sign a document saying the aircraft had made an emergency landing.
She said the Syrian Arab Airlines would file a protest with the International Union of Aviation and the Arab Aviation Union.
Corroborating Syria’s view, Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing an arms exporting source, reported that there were no weapons on board the Syrian plane. “Neither weapons nor any systems or assembly parts for military equipment were or could have been on board the passenger plane,” the official said. “If there were a need to deliver military equipment or armaments to Syria, it would be done in a routine way rather than illegally, let alone by using a passenger plane”.
As ties between Turkey and Russia go downhill, the Russian Foreign Ministry has accused Ankara of endangering Russian lives by diverting a flight from Moscow to Damascus. The Ministry also took exception to Turkey’s decision not to allow diplomatic access to the Russian passengers on board the Syrian plane. “We are troubled that the lives of the passengers aboard the plane, including 17 Russian citizens were put at risk by this inappropriate act. Turkey did not inform Russia that Russian citizens were among those detained on the plane. We found this out through the press,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aleksandr Lukashevich. The denial of diplomatic access to passengers violated the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, Russia Today reported.