Syria President Assad with Iran Majlis foreign policy committee member Alaeddin Boroujerdi. Syria has been fighting US-backed rebels for over a year., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
October 10, 2012
Tensions Soar as Turkey Forces Down Syrian Jet
By ANNE BARNARD, CHRISTINE HAUSER and ALAN COWELL
New York Times
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 stay out of Syrian airspace and warning of increasingly forceful responses if Syrian artillery gunners keep lobbing shells across the border.
Turkey’s NTV television said Turkish warplanes were dispatched to intercept a Syrian A-320 Airbus jetliner with 35 passengers en route from Moscow to Damascus, and force it to land at Esenboga Airport in Ankara, because it may have been carrying a weapons shipment to the Syrian government.
“We forced the plane to land in order to inspect its cargo,” the foreign minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, told NTV.
There was no immediate comment from the Syrians. 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 bombs have landed on Turkish soil, prompting Turkish gunners to return fire.
News reports on Wednesday spoke of intensified fighting close to the Syrian border settlement of Azamarin, with mortar and machine-gun fire clearly audible from the Turkish side. Wounded civilians, some of them in makeshift boats full of 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 will be “even stronger” if the shelling persists.
The rising tensions between Turkey and Syria are especially troublesome because Turkey is a member of NATO, which considers an attack on one member an attack on all, implicitly raising 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 many of Syria’s neighbors, 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 Syrian refugees have fled into Turkey and Jordan in particular as the revolt, which began in March 2011, has evolved into bloody sectarian warfare. 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 appeared to harden 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.”
On Tuesday, a jihadist insurgent group that Western intelligence officials have linked to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a multiple bombing by suicide attackers who struck an intelligence compound on the outskirts of Damascus Monday night. It was the second major assault in a week that the group, the Al Nusra Front for the People of the Levant, has claimed to have carried out against a government facility in a Syrian urban center.
The attacks have highlighted a worrisome theme in the Syrian conflict, in which Sunni extremist groups like the Nusra Front are claiming responsibility for deadly attacks on government targets, including suicide bombings, with increasing frequency. While the main opposition fighting force, the Free Syrian Army, has denied any ties to such groups, their presence has strengthened Mr. Assad’s argument that the conflict is being orchestrated by terrorists.
While most Syrian insurgents are members of the country’s Sunni majority, many of them defectors from the military, Mr. Assad retains the intense loyalty of much of the Alawite minority, to which he belongs. Nonetheless, recent signs of fracturing have surfaced in his Alawite base, including unconfirmed reports of deadly clashes last weekend in his ancestral home, Qardaha, a village in Latakia Province, which borders Turkey.
In another possible signal of Alawite ambivalence about Mr. Assad’s political leadership, opposition figures in Syria and in neighboring Jordan said that as many as seven high-ranking Alawite military and intelligence officers had defected in recent days, with some saying they had entered Jordan.
Anne Barnard reported from Beirut and Christine Hauser from New York and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Sebnem Arsu from Istanbul, Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Ranya Kadri from Amman, Jordan, and Rick Gladstone from New York.