People gather atop the aircraft steps at a Syrian passenger plane that was… (Burhan Ozbilici/AP )
BEIRUT — Turkey claimed Thursday that it had found Russian munitions aboard a Syrian passenger jet forced to land in its capital, Ankara, drawing Moscow into the spiraling Syrian-Turkish tensions that are threatening to erupt into regional war.
Russia demanded an explanation from Turkey for the interception of the Syrian Air plane, which was escorted to the civilian airport in Ankara by Turkish F-16s on Wednesday and detained for nearly eight hours before being allowed to continue on its way without its cargo.
At a news conference Thursday evening, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the cargo included unspecified “munitions,” adding that an investigation was continuing.
“This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, in a reference to the state-run manufacturer that supplies Turkey’s military.
Turkish news reports indicated that the equipment included electronic communications devices, but a Turkish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject declined to elaborate on what exactly was found, other than to describe it as “military equipment.”
Syria denied that there was any improper cargo aboard the plane and accused Turkey of an act of “air piracy.” All the items on board the plane had been properly registered, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The cargo did not include any types of weapons or prohibited goods,” it said.
The interception followed a week of sky-high tensions between Syria and Turkey that began with the deaths of five civilians in a Syrian mortar strike against a Turkish village. Turkey fired back, triggering five days of mortar exchanges that raised fears that a full-blown war could be imminent.
Although the artillery fire has ceased, the interception of the Airbus plane points to Turkey’s growing frustration with the crisis unfolding along its borders as Syrian government forces battle rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has been inundated with nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the violence, and stray shells had crashed into the Turkish side of the border several times in recent months, without causing casualties.
Turkish officials suspect, however, that though those earlier strikes apparently involved errant shells fired by Assad’s security forces struggling to hold ground against rebel advances across northern Syria, last week’s deadly strike was different because six shells fired simultaneously landed in the same village, and the mortar rounds continued even after Turkey retaliated.
Erdogan criticized at home
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government has come under growing domestic criticism for a policy that has aggressively supported the Syrian opposition without demonstrating any discernible benefit for Turkey or, seemingly, accelerating Assad’s departure.
“Turkey’s Syria policy is on the verge of proving to be a complete fiasco,” columnist Emre Uslu wrote in the Today’s Zaman newspaper last week.
Turkey has hosted the leadership of the opposition Free Syrian Army in a camp near the border and has allowed rebel fighters to freely traverse its borders with weapons and funds. It has also called for a no-fly zone in northern Syria, similar to the one imposed over Libya last year, to provide a haven for refugees, deter them from entering Turkey and protect rebel gains in the area.
The Free Syrian Army continues to make advances, albeit slowly, against government forces in the north, and this week it claimed to have captured the key town of Maarat al-Numan in the northern province of Idlib. Battles are continuing there, but if the rebels prevail, they will have severed a vital supply route between the capital, Damascus, and the city of Aleppo, a strategic prize in the rebel effort to carve out a swath of liberated territory.
Yet Turkey’s NATO allies have shown little appetite for any form of military intervention in volatile Syria, despite repeated assertions of support for Turkey and strenuous calls for Assad to depart. And Assad clings to power in Damascus despite nearly 19 months of increasingly violent challenges to his rule, shored up by the unwavering support of Russia, Iran, the Shiite Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon and the Shiite-led government in Iraq.
In a reminder of the risk that the tensions emanating from the Syria crisis could provoke a regional conflagration, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah asserted responsibility for dispatching a spy drone over Israel that was shot down by Israeli jets on Saturday. “This was not the first time and will not be the last,” he said in a televised address broadcast in Lebanon on Thursday night.