Russia-Turkey ties slip downhill to the lowest level with over grounding of Syrian plane

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Source: Sergei Karpukhin/AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Source: Sergei Karpukhin/AP

The incident happened two days following the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s postponement of his planned visit to Turkey.

The statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday that the Syrian aircraft did not carry any weapons but had some spare parts for use in Syrian anti-aircraft radars, may have put the record straight in an ongoing diplomatic row between Russia and Turkey over Ankara’s decision to force-land the Syrian A-320 Airbus by Turkish F-16 fighter jets overnight on October 10, claiming it was carrying weapons from Moscow to Damascus. But the diplomatic wrangling over the incident has already irreparably damaged the bilateral relations between the two countries which have been rather cooperating in recent years to strengthen the mutually beneficial ties.

The incident happened two days following the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s postponement of his planned visit to Turkey scheduled on October 14-15, with Russia accusing Turkey of “provocation” that could harm the improvement of relations between Moscow and Ankara.

The Kremlin tersely announced on October 11 that Putin postponed his visit to Turkey to participate in a meeting of High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council.  Energy issues and the recent developments in the Syrian crisis, including incidents on Turkey-Syria border, were expected to be high on the agenda during Putin’s visit.

“December 3 is considered one of the possible dates for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey to attend a meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council,” Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “The exact date will be agreed through diplomatic channels,” he said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan justified the grounding of the Syrian plane. “One cannot carry defence industry equipment or arms, munitions on board a civilian aircraft. Unfortunately this rule was violated,” Erdogan said last Thursday.

In its first reaction over the force-landing of the plane in Ankara, Syria accused Turkey of “air piracy which contradicts civil aviation treaties.”  But Turkey reiterated it was driven by the suspicion that the aircraft that had taken off from Moscow was carrying military equipment, a claim Syria repeatedly denied. The Syrian plane, finally let off by Ankara, landed at Damascus airport on Thursday.

Syrian Foreign 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.”

Corroborating Syria’s view and denying Erdogan’s allegation, Lavrov told mediapersons in Moscow that Russian cargo seized from the Syrian aircraft was not arms. “There were, of course, no weapons on the plane and could not have been any,” he said.

“The aircraft carried electro-technical parts for radars, which is dual-purpose equipment, but is not banned by any international conventions,” he said, stressing "The shipment of this kind of cargo by civilian aircraft is absolutely normal practice," he said.

Lavrov added that Russia believed that the supplier of the equipment would demand its return.

He also reiterated a Russian request for an explanation on Turkey's failure to allow diplomats to meet with the 17 Russian citizens on board the Syrian Airbus.

“We are concerned that this emergency situation puts at risk the lives and safety of the passengers, who included 17 Russian citizens,” Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said after the grounding of the Syrian plane at Ankara airport.

Lukashevich said Turkish authorities had refused to grant Russian diplomatic staff and doctors, access to the Russian passengers during the eight hours that the flight was held up and failed to provide any food to them.

“The Russian side continues to insist on an explanation for the reasons of such actions by the Turkish authorities toward Russian citizens and on taking measures to preclude such incidents in the future,” he noted.

Russian arms exporters believe the statement made by the Turkish authorities that the Syrian plane en route from Moscow to Damascus was carrying weapons was a “provocation.”

“There could not have been any ammunition aboard the plane because all cargo sent from Russian airports is thoroughly controlled by the appropriate services,” they told Russian Interfax-AVN military news agency.

Russian special exporters officially said that their property could not have been aboard the Syrian plane.

“If the Turkish authorities really found something, it could only have been contraband, which is not very likely. Most likely, it is a deliberate provocation," a high-ranking representative of a weapons export structure told the agency on Friday, while commenting on the statement by Erdogan, saying the Syrian plane was carrying ammunition from Moscow to Damascus.

“There was no our cargo aboard,” representative of the Russia’s main arms exports agency, Rosoboronexport, Vyacheslav Davidenko told Russian business daily Kommersant, adding that he had no information about the cargo content and ownership.

The newspaper said, on board the A-320 Airbus there were 12 boxes with technical elements for the aerial defence radar stations in service with the Syrian army, as well as technological documentation to them.

According to Kommersant sources, the cargo required no special registration or examination, as it posed no threat either for the crewmembers or the plane. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities do not intend to leave the incident “without consequences.” According to Kommersant, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) may soon launch an investigation into the Russia’s concerned agencies as to how information about the cargo dispatch to Syria was leaked.

“The Turkish authorities sent out two F-16 fighters to escort the jet so they most likely knew about the cargo that was being carried. They would not have done this if they had not been sure,” an FSB official told Kommersant.

Lavrov’s remarks came after a meeting of Russian Security Council chaired by Putin, indicating the already strained relations between Ankara and Damascus may continue to deteriorate sharply after Turkey and Syria exchanged artillery fires across their shared border in early October.

The incident took place amid an unprecedented deterioration of relations between Turkey and Syria. Over the past week, there have been more than a dozen exchange of artillery attacks on the border of the two countries, with Turkey supporting the Syrian armed opposition over which Syria is extremely annoyed. The aggravation of the situation coincided with the advance of government troops on the positions of the opposition Free Syrian Army in the north.

Turkey has hosted the Syrian opposition and facilitated supplies to the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting to oust Assad.

 “Until recently it seemed that the Syrian issue would not affect the contacts between Russia and Turkey. However, Ankara is so deep in the Syrian conflict that it could not but affect its relations with Moscow,” Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal told the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Russia has remained an ally of the Syrian government, whereas Turkey has been a critic of Syrian President Assad since anti-government protests erupted there more than a year ago.

Russia also has arms contracts with the Syrian government worth billions of dollars. Meanwhile, the US said that it supported Turkey’s decision to force the plane down and indicated it would raise the matter with Russia.

“We strongly support the government of Turkey’s decision to inspect the plane,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, adding that Washington was “concerned by any effort to supply military equipment to the Assad regime.” The episode was likely to come up in bilateral discussions between US and Russian officials, she added.

On Friday, Nuland accused Russia of a “morally bankrupt” policy in Syria. "No responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime and particularly those with responsibilities for global peace and security as UN Security Council members have," Nuland told reporters in Washington.

She said the US had “grave concern” that Russia is continuing to supply Syrian government forces with material that could be used against rebels struggling to topple Assad’s regime. “We have no doubt that this was serious military equipment,” Nuland said.

“There are no UN Security Council sanctions on Syria because Security Council members, Russia and China, continue to block them,” she said, adding "Everybody else on the Security Council is doing what it can unilaterally to ensure that the Assad regime is not getting support from the outside."

Russia has, so far, repeatedly blocked international sanctions against the embattled Assad regime over what it says is a pro-rebel bias. Tens of thousands of people have been killed since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011, according to opposition groups.

 Russia has insisted that its ongoing arms deliveries to Syria are in accordance with international law. Turkey initially took the initiative to end Syria's isolation from the international community and asked Damascus to implement reform packages. But Syrian leader Assad did not deliver on the promises to Erdogan. Damascus' failure to implement reforms not only damaged Turkey's reputation as a mediator in the Middle East, but also led to a severe breakdown in diplomatic relations between the neighbouring countries.

The influx of Syrian refugees into the Turkish territories worsened relations and raised the question of whether a buffer zone would be established inside Syrian territory.

Erdogan has been campaigning for a UN-backed buffer zone in Syria which would ease the burden of Turkey's refugee crisis. But the international community remains reluctant.

The tension escalated in June, when a Turkish surveillance plane was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defences. Erdogan said that Turkish armed forces would not allow any attack on Turkish territories, adding that the assaults would not go unanswered.

Shortly thereafter, Turkey increased the number of its troops along the border.

At a time when the Kurdish minority in Syria has started controlling the northern areas of the country, which has inflamed Turkish fears that this might encourage a similar development in the Kurdish region inside Turkey, the row between the two countries may signal deeper conflicts.

However, the incident of force-landing of the Syrian passenger plane, also seemed to reinforce the increasing solidarity between the Syria-Russia-Iran-Iraq leadership. After signing a $4.2 billion arms deal with Russia earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his visit to Moscow, warned Turkey not to exaggerate its differences with Syria and draw NATO into the conflict.

Dadan Upadhyay is an Indian journalist based in Moscow.

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