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With a lately-assertive Turkey forcing a Syrian commercial airliner to land in its capital Ankara, the conflict in Syria is acquiring a new dimension. The 18-month old crisis in the country ruled with an iron hand by Bashar Al-Assad has already on occasions spilled into Lebanon, and thousands of Syrians have fled to Jordan, living there in refugee camps. Turkey is also sheltering Syrian nationals displaced by the insurgency. However, the latest row will further exacerbate the already frosty ties between the former allies.
On Wednesday, Turkey scrambled two fighter jets to escort a Syrian A320 plane that was flying from Russia to Syria through Turkish air space. Ankara says it had intelligence feed of the aircraft carrying non-civilian cargo meant for Syria. As was expected, Russia and Syria hit back, blaming Turkey for what they said was illegally forcing the plane to land. Syria issued a statement that accused Turkey of putting the lives of passengers on the aircraft in danger by flying its warplanes too close to the airliner.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday revealed that the Syrian aircraft had ammunition and defence equipment onboard. Passenger aircraft are not allowed to carry such cargo.
With the Gulf states supporting the Syrian rebels and Iran and Russia directly helping the Assad regime ride out the insurgency by supplying military hardware, the conflict has seeped deep into the international politics of the region. Russia and China, though not geographically contiguous with the Middle East, have unabashedly supported the Syrian regime in fighting the insurgency. The latest incident shows that the Syrian crisis is creeping more strongly into the fabric of bilateral ties in the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was to visit Turkey next week but postponed it to December. The Kremlin said that the postponement was effected after Erdogan and Putin talked over phone and decided to defer their meeting. With allegations and counter allegations flying thick and fast, relations between Turkey and Syria have dived to new lows. This could lead to an escalation of conflict in the region and embroil it in a free-for-all. The A320 aircraft was carrying 30 passengers, much lower than its full capacity. Russia complained that Russian passengers were denied consular and medical access and not allowed to go to the airport during the hold-up.
Turkey has confiscated the cargo, countering all the allegations of Syria and Russia and saying that everything was done in keeping with international regulations. Turkey maintains that air traffic control asked the pilot to retreat when he was flying over the Black Sea. But he refused to go back. As the Turkish government further examines the cargo from the aeroplane, more sordid details are likely to emerge. The hostilities between Syria and Turkey after the shooting down of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian air space in June has also contributed to the milieu of aggression. Both nations have been trading fire at the border for the last few days. If the latest crisis explodes into a full-scale war between the two, it is the Syrian population that will suffer the most.