The mid-October 2012 Turkish interception of an alleged Syrian military shipment was intended to build momentum for the case to intervene in Syria. But it backfired, and may have damaged US-Turkish trust, and given the upper hand to Moscow.
Turkey’s interception on October 10, 2012, of a Syrian Air A320 transport aircraft, allegedly carrying key air defense radar equipment for Syria from Russia, was initially portrayed as a major intelligence coup by Turkey and an indicator that Syria’s and Iran’s air defense networks had been seriously weakened. However, highly-placed sources in Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus have confirmed to GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs that the reporting on the issue was Turkish disinformation, but, more importantly, that it may have been a direct result of US pressure to intercept the aircraft and force it to land at Ankara’s Esenboga airport.
In fact the aircraft was not carrying air defense radar equipment or military cargo.
The incident began to backfire by October 18, 2012. The fact that the incident had been either a mistake on the part of the Turkish Government, or manufactured — because the US Government had been discreetly pushing Turkey into this specific action — may well worsen US-Turkish relations and start to rebuild, to the degree possible, Turkish-Russian relations.
Ankara had initially attempted to portray the incident as a sign of Turkish resolve and efficient operational capability, in the period immediately following military activity between Turkish and Syrian forces on their joint border. However, there was subsequently strong evidence that the US, at White House insistence, had pushed Turkey to make the interception of the aircraft and that the White House had possibly mis-led Ankara as to the contents of the cargo.
Certainly, the Turkish Government subsequently — on October 18, 2012 — and discreetly tried to let the matter drop, but the Russian Government immediately stated publicly that the original Turkish claims had been incorrect. Russian Government spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on October 18 2012, in Moscow: “The Turkish side does not in principle question the legitimacy of the cargo that was seized but is unhappy with the transportation notification procedure. Our Turkish partners have now effectively retracted the initial allegations that there was ammunition on board.”
The parts in question were, in fact, spare parts for the radar in the Aleppo civilian airport (which was damaged by Turkey-based rebels) and had nothing to do with air defense. The CIA did alert the Turks to intercept the aircraft and the White House was helping with the beating of the drums in order to justify Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s build-up on the Syrian border and the unilateral imposition of Bosnia-style buffer zones inside Syria.
There was some suggestion that the visit of US Director of Central Intelligence David Petraeus to Ankara on September 2, 2012, for two days of talks with his Turkish counterpart, MIT [National Intelligence Organization (NIO) (Milli ?stihbarat Te?kilat?: M?T)] Director Hakan Fidan, may have set the stage for the interception of the Syrian Air A320 just more than a month later.
Significantly, the Erdo?an Government, and probably MIT, had acted on October 10, 2012, like a well-oiled publicity machine, leaking “details” of their coup to the local and international media. Even opposition news outlets in Turkey showed admiration for the Turkish military’s handling of the incident. One extensive piece, in Taraf newspaper (and online), by writer Emru Uslu on October 15, 2012, was quick, in its conclusions, to point to the imminent end of Pres. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and an end to Iran’s effective air defense network.
The tenor of the article shows the clear hand of official leakers [comments in square brackets added by the translator]:
Related Article: Turkey-Syria on the Brink of War
Ankara intercepted a plane [allegedly] carrying military gear from Russia to Syria. I researched the background of this controversial move from different quarters in Ankara.
(1) The interception [on Oct. 10] had nothing to do with postponement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ankara visit. It was not a political move.
(2) The plane wasn’t intercepted because it was carrying missiles or weapons. [The interception] was a finely adjusted move that would not contravene international law. It is probably the first fully thought-through, correct move by Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian crisis.
(3) Turkey knew in advance what was on the plane. Turkish news media is reporting the intelligence received suggested [that the plane was carrying] purely military gear. [In fact] the intelligence was very detailed, giving a full listing of what was in the boxes.
Turkey followed a very clever step-by-step strategy and scored a major gain against Russia. It also acquired extraordinary military intelligence that could [potentially] be used in an international operation against Syria.
(4) I understand that when the plane neared Turkish air space, the Syrian pilot was told that if he entered that air space his plane would be required to land for a search. Simultaneously, F-16s were sent up to monitor the plane.
The timing of the warning issued to the pilot and the location of the plane was decided in such a way that the pilot couldn’t change his course. He was just about to enter Turkish air space. This is how Turkey managed to avoid legal liability. That is, if there was no military gear on the plane, Turkey’s argument was ready: “We warned the pilot before he entered Turkish air space. Nevertheless, he did not change his course. Therefore the landing of the plane was not enacted by military force but by voluntary decision.”
Our Foreign Ministry officials were also emphasizing that Turkey had not forced the plane down.
“If the pilot had not accepted our warning, he could have changed his course before entering our air space,” our diplomats say.
When asked why we sent up F-16s, the answer was: “That was a precaution. Because the pilot could have changed course and headed in another direction any time he wanted.”
The situation is like this: The Foreign Ministry thought of all scenarios that would be legally justified and in a brilliant move had the plane land in Turkey. At this juncture, Foreign Ministry bureaucracy and intelligence outfits have to be congratulated for their excellent management of the plane crisis. They did the right move at the right time to get the right result.
So what does all of this mean?
You have to pay attention to a piece of information from Russia. Cihan News Agency quoted Russian sources saying: “The plane was carrying 12 boxes packed with technical gear. This gear was for anti-aircraft radar bases belonging to the Syrian army.”
This is the most critical piece of information to enlighten the plane affair, and was also confirmed by our foreign ministry sources. It explains why no photographs of the gear were shared with the media and why the plane was intercepted.
Related Article: Baghdad is Losing Iraqi Kurdistan - Empowered by Oil and Gas
It goes like this: Syria has Russian-made air defense systems. Western institutions don’t know the details of these systems. We are even told that this is the system that helped to down our F-4 plane last June. More critically, since the details of the Syrian air defense systems were not known, NATO could not calculate its losses in a potential operation against Syria. This is why NATO action against Syria has been deferred while NATO tried to learn the details of Syria’s systems.
Those not in the know could not understand why NATO was not intervening until now. They didn’t know that NATO’s biggest anxiety was not knowing the details of the Russian air defense systems.
The Syrian plane was intercepted so that NATO and Turkey could acquire critical parts that would provide the details of the electronic system — that is, the brain — of Syrian air defense.
Also judging from media reports, the source of the detailed intelligence about the plane was NATO itself. It allowed enough time for Turkey to draw up a finely adjusted plan to intercept the plane. NATO now has extremely sensitive information that will be needed in an operation and which has naturally provided Turkey with a significant edge over Syria.
The information obtained is not important only for possible action against Syria. It has also provided very valuable information to the Western alliance for any possible operation against Iran in the future. Iranian air defense systems are also based on Russian systems.
In short, from the Syrian plane we got the most vital secrets of Iran and Syria and the brain of their air defense and communication systems. Certainly it might expedite military intervention in Syria.
If I were in the place of Bashar al-Assad and his supporters, I wouldn’t resist after this point. Their last bastion fell with the data obtained from the plane.
Prime Minister Erdo?an was very much part of the operation, although the fact that he put his name and credibility on the line for an operation destined to be discredited indicates that both he — and perhaps the US officials — were deliberately mis-led by intelligence sources regarding the contents of the aircraft. It is even possible that good counter-intelligence by the Russian or Syrian governments fed mis-information to Washington. Nonetheless, on October 11, 2012, Mr Erdo?an said publicly: “One cannot carry defense industry equipment or arms, munitions... with civilian aircraft. … Unfortunately this rule was violated.” Syria, in response, accused Mr Erdo?an of lying, saying the charge “lacks credibility”.
Related Article: Baghdad is Losing Iraqi Kurdistan - Empowered by Oil and Gas
By October 19, 2012, the news that the incident had been a major intelligence mistake, and that it may have damaged US-Turkish relations rather than damaged Moscow, still had not been understood by all the regional media, however. Al Arabiya, in a report by Abdullah Buzkurt, on October 19, 2012, noted: “Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s recent harsh criticism of Russia, following the forced landing of a Syrian plane in the Turkish capital and Ankara’s exposure of its non-civilian cargo [it was, in fact, civilian — Ed.] destined for the Syrian defense ministry, must be an unambiguous indication to Moscow that friendly feelings in Ankara towards Russia should not be taken for granted. It appears there has been a serious miscalculation on the part of Russian policymakers that Turkey would keep compartmentalizing Russia and the Syrian crisis in separate baskets forever. They were wrong.”
This, and similar Turkish reporting, has begun to backfire faster than Ankara or Washington could have expected, and equally highlighted the possibility that there were continued impediments to any NATO military intervention to support Turkey in taking offensive action against Syria, or even pushing for the Bosnia-style buffer zones. At the same time, US, French, and Israeli intelligence estimates note that there were far fewer anti-Assad guerilla combatants functioning inside Syria than were earlier being estimated, and that they were — despite massive financial and weapons support from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (and indirectly, the US) — dysfunctional to the point where their activities have been instrumental in building support for the Assad Government, rather than opposition to it.
Assad is by no means ready to depart the scene, and the Iran-Turkey-Syria scenario is moving more in Syria’s (and therefore Iran’s) favor.
By. Gregory Copley