Rift with Moscow Deepens After Turkey Forces Syrian Jet to Land


MOSCOW — Tensions over Turkey’s forced landing and inspection of a Moscow-to-Damascus flight by a civilian Syrian jetliner expanded on Thursday to Russia, which accused the Turks of conducting an illegal search and denied their contention that the plane had been carrying military cargo bound for Syria.

Syria also reacted for the first time to the disrupted flight of the Syria Air jetliner, which landed under Turkish warplane escort in Ankara on Wednesday and stayed there for hours before the Turkish authorities allowed it to proceed. Syrian officials quoted by SANA, the official news agency, called the Turkish action illegal, accused the Turks of mistreating the crew and frightening the passengers, and said Syria would protest the incident to international aviation authorities.

The forced landing not only aggravated the already-tense confrontation between Turkey and Syria but risked dragging in Russia, the main political and military ally of Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, whose effort to violently crush a nearly 19-month-old uprising against his government has evolved into a civil war that is threatening the stability of the Middle East.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the plane, which carried 35 passengers, had been detained on suspicion of harboring weapons and said a number of unspecified cargo items “that infringed on international regulations” had been confiscated. Turkish news reports said they were missile components.

On Thursday, Moscow expressed dismay at the Turkish action and denied that there were weapons or other military supplies aboard. .

“I think that tension will now develop in the relationship between Russia and Turkey,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official said, accusing Turkish officials of breaking the law by searching the Syrian plane on the ground.

Moscow’s complaints were quickly rejected by Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, which summoned the Russian ambassador and said the Turks had acted properly and had treated the passengers responsibly, Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolian News Agency reported.

Russia and Turkey are already at odds over the Syrian crisis, with Ankara joining Western and many Arab nations in support of insurgents seeking to overthrow Mr. Assad, while Moscow has consistently shielded Mr. Assad, its main regional ally.

Russian authorities were “disturbed” that the Turkish side had not informed its embassy that Russian citizens were being held at the airport, and did not allow diplomats to speak to Russian passengers for an eight-hour period, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Aleksandr Lukashevich, said in a written statement. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Selcuk Unal, said in a statement that Turkey had not been made aware by the plane’s crew that Russians were even aboard. An official from a Russian arms export company told the Interfax news service that Russia would never have transported arms supplies on a civilian passenger plane.

“There were not and could not have been any weapons, or systems, or military hardware equipment on board the passenger plane,” the official said. “If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way.”

Despite their differences — and a cold-war history of animosity — Russia has been striving in recent months to build its relationship with Turkey, which is one of Russia’s largest trading partners and a key player in regional politics.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey visited Moscow in late July, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is scheduled to return the visit shortly. Some Russian analysts said that the two sides would step back from further confrontation over the forced landing.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said that though the two countries have assumed opposing positions in the Syrian crisis, Russian policy makers have accepted Turkey’s stance because they view it as driven by domestic considerations. Tens of thousands of refugees have crossed the Turkish border as violence in Syria mounted, fueling grievances among Turks about their government’s handling of the crisis.

“Now Turkey cannot be an outside observer and an outside force — it’s about Turkish stability,” Mr. Lukyanov said. The relationship could suffer, he said, “if the crisis will escalate and Turkey will be more and more in the middle of the Syrian struggle. But so far, they will find a face-saving way to preserve the relationship.”

In a separate radio interview, Mr. Lukashevich, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that, “until recently, there was the impression that the serious differences over Syria would not influence Russian-Turkish ties.”

“Now the situation has changed. This is linked to the fact that Turkey has become too deeply involved in Syrian domestic affairs,” he said.

He said Turkey’s decision to ground the airliner was “quite serious” because “without total certainty that there is something there, you are taking a great risk” by ordering it to land.

“Speaking forcefully, there was no legal basis, and Russia will obviously draw attention to this,” he told Kommersant FM radio, referring to Turkey’s search of the plane.

The forced grounding of the Syria jetliner came after Turkish transportation authorities had warned all Turkish aircraft to avoid flying over Syrian territory, possibly in anticipation of retaliatory action by Syria.

Turkey is the host for main elements of the anti-Assad insurgency and for roughly 100,000 Syrian refugees, who have been fleeing in greater numbers as violence has increased along the 550-mile border in recent days. Several mortar rounds have landed on Turkish soil, prompting Turkish gunners to return fire.

News reports on Wednesday described intensified fighting close to Azamarin, a Syrian border settlement, with mortar and machine-gun fire clearly audible from the Turkish side. Wounded civilians, some in makeshift boats filled with women and children, could be seen crossing the narrow Orontes River, which demarcates part of the Syrian border with Hatay Province in Turkey.

The Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Necdet Ozel, who visited parts of the border area on Wednesday, was quoted by Turkish news media as saying that military responses to Syrian shelling would be “even stronger” if the shelling persisted.

The rising tensions between Turkey and Syria are seen as especially troublesome because Turkey is a member of NATO, which can deem an attack on one member an attack on all, and this implicitly raises the possibility that NATO will be drawn into a volatile Middle East conflict.

On Tuesday, the NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, emphasized that NATO had “all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”

The fighting in Syria has touched all other neighbors of the country as well, with fighting reported recently in villages near a border crossing to Lebanon in the west, while in the east, Syrian authorities have lost control of some crossing points on the border with Iraq. Tens of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon and Jordan, straining resources in those countries. Last month several mortar shells fired from Syria landed in the Golan Heights near Israel’s northern border.

Skirmishes have been reported between Syrian troops and Jordanians guarding their northern border, and Jordan is worried that the porous frontier could become a conduit for Islamic militants joining the anti-Assad struggle.

At the same time, Mr. Assad’s government appears to have hardened its position over the already remote possibility of a truce with the rebels. On Wednesday the government rejected a proposal made a day earlier by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, that Mr. Assad take the first step by declaring an immediate unilateral cease-fire, to be followed by a matching step from his armed opponents.

Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, said in response that the insurgents must stop shooting first. In a statement reported by the official Syrian Arab News Agency, Mr. Makdissi said his government had told Mr. Ban he should send emissaries to the countries arming the insurgents, and urge them “to use their influence to stop the violence from the other side, then informing the Syrian side of the results.”

Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon, and Sebnem Arsu from Hatay, Turkey. Reporting was contributed by Alan Cowell from Paris, Christine Hauser and Rick Gladstone from New York, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.

                                                                                                                                          THE  NEW  YORK TIMES


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