Finian Cunningham: Turkish ‘Weapons Airliner’ Story Does Not Add Up
More than 24 hours after it reached its final destination in Damascus, Turkey has yet to provide substantial justification for why it forced a civilian airliner to dramatically land in Ankara under coercion of F16 fighter jets.
The Airbus A320 with 37 people onboard was on a routine flight from Moscow to Damascus. Among the passengers were women and children, yet the aircraft was forced to land for nine hours and undergo a security shakedown. Reports say that Turkish security officers handcuffed the crew and pointed guns while the plane’s cargo was searched and a portion confiscated.
Several international protocols appear to have been transgressed by the high-handed Turkish action, including denying diplomatic contact to Russian and Syrian civilian passengers, preventing medical assistance to young and elderly, and withholding basic services to those onboard during what must have been a traumatic ordeal. Furthermore, the Turkish authorities did not closely inform the respective governments of developments during the entire nine-hour process. Indeed reports indicate that Moscow in particular was treated with an insulting cavalier attitude. Apparently, the Russians were not even informed that their citizens were being detained. Outrageously, the Russian authorities say they only learnt of the matter from news websites.
Turkish authorities said publicly on the Wednesday night of the incident that they acted because they had unspecified information that the airliner was “illegally carrying weapons”. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a news conference that there was military equipment and ammunition onboard.
“This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Erdogan claimed.
His assertion was reiterated by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Speaking while on an official visit in Athens only two hours after the Syrian plane was forced to land, Davutoglu said: “We are determined not to allow arms supply via Turkish airspace to a regime that is resorting to cruelty against its own people. Trying to do so by using our airspace is unacceptable.”
But several discrepancies indicate that the official Turkish story does not add up.
1. If the aircraft did indeed have illegal military equipment onboard, it seems odd that the Turkish authorities would then allow the plane to take off and proceed to Damascus as normal. Surely, in that case, the plane would have been impounded for such a serious breach of aviation rules, with alternative travel arrangements made for the passengers? Also would not the captain and crew have been arrested?
2. It seems strange that Erdogan and Davutoglu took personal lead roles in addressing the media on the matter at an early stage of the incident, making such strident assertions. There is more than a suggestion that their response was scripted, which in turn suggests that the whole incident was a premeditated set-piece.
3. If Turkey’s prime minister was involved at such a direct level, which seems odd, nevertheless why didn’t he get on the phone to Vladimir Putin in Moscow to avert a dangerous mid-air showdown? Reports say that Erdogan and Putin were in touch by phone only days before to discuss the latter’s postponed trip to Turkey later this year. If they are on such cordial terms, why didn’t Erdogan just make a courtesy call to Putin on the night of the “suspected arms smuggling” to see if a safer compromise could have been worked out.
4. The high-flown claims of weapons and munitions have subsequently not been backed up with evidence – nearly 48 hours after the plane was grounded. There are much more prosaic claims in various media that the confiscated cargo consists of radio and other communication equipment. The Turkish authorities are now claiming that they are examining the seized material. What is so difficult about identifying and displaying weapons? What’s the delay?
5. Syria’s foreign ministry has categorically denied that there was any military or illegal cargo. It said: “The plane’s cargo was documented in detail on the bill of landing and the plane did not carry any illegal material or any weapons.”
6. That position is backed up by the director of Syrian Airlines Ghaida Abdulatif, who said the aircraft had no illicit cargo. “When they [the Turks] inspected the plane, they found civil parcels, electronic equipment that is allowed to be transferred and it was officially registered,” Abdulatif said.
7. A spokeswoman for Moscow’s Vnukovo airport told Russia’s state news agency Itar-Tass that everything put on the plane had cleared customs and security checks, and that no prohibited items were onboard.
8. Contradicting the above Syrian and Russian claims of proper clearance, Ankara issued a diplomatic note to the Syrian Consulate in Istanbul claiming: “The plane’s cargo was inconsistent with its bills of landing, and the cargo may have had a military purpose.” Note how this statement says “may have had a military purpose” which is less than categorical, unlike Erdogan and Davutoglu’s assertions.
9. More damning for the official Turkish version is the response from the Russian state arms export agency, Rosoboronexport, that Erdogan had pointed the finger at for transporting the alleged weapons. “We had no cargo on that airplane,” Vyacheslav Davidenko, spokesman for Rosoboronexport, told Reuters.
10. Russia does not have a weapons embargo on Syria. It could easily transport any military material via normal military means over an air route that would avoid Turkish airspace. It seems extremely unlikely that Russia would go to the trouble of smuggling weapons onboard a civilian airliner given the risks. To accuse Russia and Syria of such a reprehensible practice and the danger it posed to civilians is in fact a demeaning insult to diplomatic relations. So much so that it betrays an unseemly desire by Turkey to score a propaganda point in the face of common sense.
In sum, the Turkish government of Recep Erdogan seems prepared to ride roughshod over international law and diplomatic norms to further its agenda of aggression towards Syria, and by extension, Russia.
It is telling that Itar-Tass reported in the midst of the airline shakedown, in Ankara, NATO sources were saying that Turkish military was being put on general high alert. That suggests the dramatic security maneuver was aimed at justifying a pre-meditated military mobilization. The next day, Turkish media were reporting increased deployment of tanks and warplanes on the Syrian border.
Shamefully, Turkey seems to be prepared to put civilian lives are risk to further this criminal agenda. However, given the criminality of Turkey’s covert war of aggression in Syria over the past 19 months and the appalling level of death and human suffering that it has exacted, it should be of surprise that Ankara would engage in this latest incident of de facto hijacking, abduction and terrorism. Far from it being an irregular incident, it is more accurately understood as part of a consistent – albeit nefarious – policy.