TURKEY, SEEKING WEAPONS, FORCES SYRIAN JET TO LAND
By Anne Barnard and Sebnem Arsu
New York Times
October 10, 2012
BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Turkey sharply escalated its confrontation with Syria on Wednesday, forcing a Syrian passenger plane to land in Ankara on suspicion of carrying military cargo, ordering Turkish civilian airplanes to avoid Syria’s airspace and warning of increasingly forceful responses if Syrian artillery gunners keep lobbing shells across the border.
NTV television in Turkey said two Turkish F-16 warplanes had been sent to intercept a Syrian Air jetliner, an Airbus A320 with 35 passengers en route from Moscow to Damascus, and had forced it to land at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, the capital, because it might have been carrying a weapons shipment to the Syrian government. Inspectors confiscated what NTV described as parts of a missile and allowed the plane to resume its trip after several hours. The Turkish authorities declined to specify what had been found.
“There are items that are beyond the ones that are legitimate and required to be reported in civilian flights,” Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in remarks reported by the country’s semiofficial Anatolian News Agency. “There are items that we would rate as troublesome.”
There was no immediate comment from Syria. Turkish transportation authorities said earlier in the day that all Turkish aircraft should avoid flying over Syrian territory, possibly in anticipation of retaliatory action by Syria.
The steps taken by Turkey added ominous new tensions to its troubled relationship with Syria, where a nearly 19-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has evolved into a civil war and threatened to touch off a regional conflict. 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 considers 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.”
--Anne Barnard reported from Beirut, and Sebnem Arsu from Hatay, Turkey. Reporting was contributed by Christine Hauser and Rick Gladstone from New York, Alan Cowell from Paris, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.
--This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction: October 10, 2012. Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of Turkey’s foreign minister. He is Ahmet Davutoglu, not Ahmed Davutoglu.
TURKEY'S AMMUNITION CLAIM ON SYRIA PLANE 'LIES' -- DAMASCUS
October 11, 2012
Syria has accused Turkey of lying over its claim that a Syria-bound plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made defense equipment.
Syria's foreign ministry challenged Turkish P.M. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the claim, to show publicly the "ammunition" that had been seized.
Mr. Erdogan said the jet was intercepted because of suspicions that Russia was breaching an arms embargo on Syria.
Russia also denied the aircraft had illegal cargo on board.
It said the interception by Turkish military jets had put the lives of the passengers -- including 17 Russian nationals -- "in danger."
Tensions were already high between Turkey and Syria, following the deaths of five Turkish civilians by shelling from across the border last week.
Turkey has returned fire, and on Wednesday its top military commander warned Ankara would respond with greater force if the shelling continued.
On Thursday Syria's foreign ministry accused Mr. Erdogan of lying "to justify his government's hostile attitude towards Syria," according to Syria's Sana state news agency.
"The plane's cargo was documented in detail on the bill of lading and the plane did not carry any illegal material or any weapons," the ministry said.
It urged Mr Erdogan to "show the equipment and ammunition at least to his people."
The Syrian Air Airbus A320, with about 30 passengers on board, was intercepted late on Wednesday by two Turkish fighters and escorted to Ankara's Esenboga airport.
Turkey said previously it had received an intelligence tip-off that it had illegal cargo on board.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Mr. Erdogan said: "This was equipment and ammunition that was being sent from a Russian agency... to the Syrian defense ministry."
"Their examination is continuing," he added.
He said the supplier was a state-run arms manufacturer.
Russia's state arms export agency Rosoboronexport said it had no information about the cargo and denied it had any connection with the flight or anything on board.
The aircraft was allowed to leave Ankara in the early hours of Thursday. But Syrian Transport Minister Mahmoud Saeed accused Turkey of carrying out "air piracy" and breaking civil aviation agreements.
Turkey has already imposed an arms embargo on Syria, and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said it was determined to stop any transfer of weapons to Syria through its airspace.
The foreign ministry said there was "no basis" for safety concerns and that "all measures were taken to ensure the safety of all passengers and to cater to their possible needs."
Since the uprising against Syria President Bashar al-Assad began last year, Russia has repeatedly refused to abandon its support for Damascus, while Turkey has been a vocal critic of the Assad government.
The BBC's James Reynolds, near the Syrian border in southern Turkey, says that despite taking opposite views, Ankara and Moscow have maintained a close relationship and continued to do business together.
This incident could be the biggest test of their ties since the conflict broke out, he adds.
In another sign of deteriorating relations, Turkish officials revealed on Thursday that Syria had stopped buying electricity from its neighbor last week.
In Syria itself, a huge explosion hit near a state security building in the centre of Damascus on Thursday.
State media said two people had been injured in the attack, which it blamed on "terrorists."
SYRIA AND TURKEY ARE ON THE BRINK OF ALL-OUT WAR
By David Blair
October 11, 2012
If anyone believed that Syria’s bloodshed would stay inside the country’s borders, the events of the last week should have put them right. I’m in southern Turkey, near the frontier with Syria, and this area feels like the new front line of the battle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Convoys of Turkish army vehicles ply the roads down to the border and, quietly, civilians are trickling away to safer areas.
The reason is simple: cross-border artillery and mortar bombardments have become daily events. Last Friday, I went to the scene of the bloodiest incident so far, when a Syrian mortar bomb landed outside a family home in the Turkish town of Akçakale. By malign chance, a mother, her six daughters and a female relative happened to be outside, making dinner under an olive tree, when the weapon exploded beside them. They were, quite simply, cut to pieces. When I arrived, a severed human finger, covered in flies, was still lying on the ground. Three of the girls survived with critical injuries; the mother, three daughters and the visiting relative were all killed.
Since then, hardly a day has passed without the Syrian army firing shells or bombs into Turkey, or vice versa. If another family dies in similar circumstances, the Turkish government will come under immense popular pressure to respond with full force. If the Akçakale killings were to be repeated, I would not be surprised if Turkey retaliated with a strike by troops as well as artillery, possibly accompanied with air power. The country’s parliament has authorised the government to do exactly that if necessary. In other words, Turkey and Syria are close to war. The two countries have been waging a covert, undeclared war since the onset of the uprising against Assad, with Turkey supplying the Syrian rebels and Damascus hitting back by fuelling the Kurdish insurgency inside its neighbour. But we could be close to the moment when this shadow war becomes a formal, cross-border conflict.
The lesson is clear: a civil war in volatile region is like a brushfire. Leave it alone, and it will spread.
AS U.N. FALTERS, SYRIA'S CONFLICT THREATENS REGIONAL STABILITY
By Barak M. Seener
October 11, 2012
Editor's note: An Associate Middle East Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, Barak M. Seener has written extensively about Middle East issues, including the Arab Spring, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Israel's defense and security policies, and the Palestinianization of Israeli Arabs.
LONDON -- It would be a mistake to write off threats of war against Syria from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as mere bluster, assuming that Turkey will maintain the status quo in valuing its relationship with the United States on one hand, while resisting Iran's hegemonic ambitions on the other.
The recent cross-border confrontation could ignite regional convulsions as Turkey is sucked into Syria, leading to belated actions on the part of the international community.
The Assad regime knows its time is limited as the rate of military and intelligence officers defecting to Jordan and Turkey increases in momentum. Rebel attacks are inching closer to the heart of the Assad regime, such as the recent attack on the Syrian air force intelligence compound in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. This contributes to the regime's recklessness in firing upon Turkey with impunity.
Ankara may also be emboldened by the fact that Iran, a key Assad ally, could be limited in its ability to intervene due to its economic woes at home. This week its currency -- the rial -- plummeted in value due to a combination of sanctions and Tehran's own mismanagement of the economy. Turkey has less to lose by responding to Syrian aggression -- this rationale is supported by recent reports that Iran has withdrawn from Syria 275 members from a special operations unit attached to its elite Quds Force.
The conflict in Syria is no longer considered a purely internal matter. It clearly has regional ramifications. Thus I believe Turkey's aim to secure its border is inextricably linked with regime change. Its increased military operations may stem from a calculus that it would accelerate the Assad regime's demise. The Turkish parliament's assent for its troops to conduct operations inside Syria is not merely a symbolic attempt to bolster Turkish pride while responding to domestic political pressure over the Syrian attacks. It gives its armed forces the ability to do more than defend its borders.
It is also likely that NATO may assist Turkey -- a member state -- with the defense of its 560-mile border, creating a de facto humanitarian buffer zone, where the Syrian opposition could have a command post. However, this risks escalating the conflict into a NATO-led mission outside the framework of the U.N. Security Council -- the kind of interventionist measure Russia and China would oppose as they did in Libya.
The shift towards conflict with Syria is characterized by the kind of strategic shift in the region that we've seen before with Turkey. Erdogan was initially reluctant to impose sanctions on Iran and is now embracing E.U. sanctions on Tehran. The Turkish premier was also supportive of Iran's nuclear ambitions all the while seeking to downgrade relations with Tehran's nemesis, Israel. Now it is aligning itself with the Sunni bloc, including Gulf states and Jordan against Iran and its Syrian proxy. This could prompt an Iranian military response and in turn instigate another spike in oil prices.
The longer the Syrian civil war continues, the greater the prospect of regional sectarian tensions emerging along Sunni-Shiite fault-lines. This could result in a Middle Eastern Cold War between regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia, with its mainly Sunni population, and the Shiite-dominated Iranians.
Meanwhile, The Obama administration's apparent strategy of "leading from behind" is an excuse for its dithering over the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Similarly, the United Nations' inaction over the crisis results from a deadlock at the Security Council, with China and Russia opposed to any intervention -- implausibly advocating that the rebels conduct dialogue with a murderous regime.
Yet with the U.N.'s extensive history of paying lip service to upholding the values of human rights while ignoring genocide in Rwanda, Sudan, Balkans, and Iraq, its dismissive manner towards the current massacres taking place on a daily basis in Syria should come as no surprise. There are estimates that up to 50,000 people have been killed, with up to two million people internally displaced since the conflict started. The U.N. claims that 300,000 Syrians have fled the country.
The U.S., realistically the only nation with the necessary military and logistical capability, could easily have prevented the refugee crisis that has heightened the prospect of conflict with Turkey. Its wariness to arm rebels was to prevent blowback from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other empowered Islamists in Syria. Yet the protracted conflict there has generated a kaleidoscopic civil-war and vacuum of governance across much of Syria that has attracted Islamists, and even revived al-Qaeda, enabling it to infiltrate the ranks of the opposition and gain support in the wake of its attacks on Syrian military and government installations.
The U.S. and its NATO allies could also have prevented much bloodshed by using air power to target the Assad regime's military apparatus. Syria's military concentrated in Damascus, Aleppo, and northern Raqqa province are strained and would be overstretched if forced to respond to external military pressure.
Yet Washington and its NATO allies could now be forced to place a significant number of troops on the ground to prevent the proliferation of Syria's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. The Obama administration has resigned itself to wishful thinking assuming, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has done, that Syrian security forces could be held together to secure chemical weapons sites in the wake of the toppling of the Assad regime. In a vacuum of governance dominated by Islamists, this may become a proliferation nightmare.
While the U.S. is keen on winding down its involvement in the Middle East to refocus its attention on Asia, Syria may be the instigator that sucks it back into the region for another decade to manage a second Cold War.
TURKEY'S ARMY ON WAR ALERT OVER SYRIA -- REPORT
Journal of Turkish Weekly
October 11, 2012
Turkey's armed forces have been put in a state of high alert over increased tensions along the border with Syria, according to anonymous NATO sources.
"Events between Ankara and Damascus are developing according to a highly critical scenario," said the source as quoted by ITAR-TASS.
The report adds that NATO's headquarters have taken up standing consultations and analysis regarding the situation along the Turkish-Syrian border.
NATO has data that Turkey has deployed 25 additional F-16 figher jets in its air base in Diyarbakir near Syria.
"Turkey aims at the creation of a no-fly zone of the Syrian air force and civilian aviation over northern Syria," adds the source.
The report further explains that the recent interception and grounding of a Syrian passenger aircraft in Turkey has to be interpreted in this light.
An exchange of fire between Turkey and Syria sprouted last week, following a spill-over of Syrian violence onto Turkish territory.
GOV'T PUTS ARMY INTO 'HIGH STATE OF READINESS'
** Turkey’s Armed Forces have been put on a ‘high state of readiness’ as the country’s chief of staff vows to respond more strongly to any hostile act by Syria **
Daily News (Turkey)
October 11, 2012
Turkey’s government has put its military into a “high state of readiness” over simmering tensions along the border with Syria amid a continuing visit by the country’s top soldier to inspect troops massed along the frontier.
“We want to give a strong message to the Syrian regime that Turkey is determined to protect its borders and people and is ready to do whatever necessary -- that is the meaning of high-level readiness,” a high-ranking official said.
The new level, which was ordered by the government after a Syrian shell killed five Turks in Akçakale last week, is one degree higher than when Ankara changed its rules of engagement after Damascus shot down a Turkish jet in June.
Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, meanwhile, targeted Syria as he continued his inspection of troops on the border. “We are here, and we are standing tall,” he said in Akçakale yesterday. “We have retaliated [for Akçakale], and if it continues, we’ll respond more strongly.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, said yesterday Turkey had no intention of intervening in Syria’s domestic politics while blaming President Bashar al-Assad for leading his nation into civil war.
In Homs, the government launched a new operation to dislodge militants ahead of a plan to send government troops to fight in Aleppo.