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Hiding Something? Inside The Russia-Turkey Clash Over Grounded Syrian Airliner

A Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter
A Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter
Ivan Safronov and Elena Chernenko

MOSCOW - On the evening of October 10th, Turkish Air Force jets forced Syrian Air flight 442, a civilian passenger plane, to land at the airport in Ankara, Turkey. They suspected that the plane, which was carrying 35 passengers from Moscow to Damascus, contained cargo not allowed under the rules of civilian aviation.

After searching the plane for nine hours, the crew and passengers were given permission to take off, but the Turks seized the plane's cargo. That same day, Turkish authorities announced that the plane had been carrying weapons.

The plane was carrying 12 boxes with technical elements for radar-location systems, which can have military applications. The seizure has had consequences for Russia and Turkey’s relationship, and the details about how this debacle happened are just now coming to light.

Several diplomatic sources have said that Russia and Turkey are engaged in talks regarding the return of the 12 boxes. Although Russia is committed to getting the technical equipment back, it is clear from the negotiations that Turkey may not permit this.

After the original clash, Turkish authorities tried to soften its accusation against Russia. In mid-October, Russian Foreign Ministry representative Alexander Lukashevich said that Turkey was not throwing doubt on the legitimacy of the cargo itself. “It was completely legal cargo - electrical equipment for radar location stations,” Lukashevich said. “The problem is with the mode of delivery.”

A source close to the Russian government confirmed that there was confusion. “The mode of delivery really was a bit problematic,” he told Kommersant. “We needed a couple of days ourselves to figure it out after the plane was detained in Ankara.” He explained that the problem was that the deliveries of the radar-location systems, which are used for aircraft defense, were handled by subcontractors.

According to Kommersant’s investigations, the planning for this particular cargo’s delivery was handled by a company called RT-Logistics, a subsidiary of the Russian government-controlled Rostechnology. The company’s website advertises, “Reliable agents in ports and at border crossings allows RT-Logistics to fulfill logistical projects at any level of difficulty.”

“Since the cargo was not large, the decision was made not to order a special cargo plane from Damascus - that would have called too much attention to the delivery,” said another source familiar with the Russian Military-Technological Cooperation system. “Likewise, we didn’t want to send the cargo with humanitarian aid, because the list of things sent in humanitarian shipments can be seen by far too many people. That’s why RT-Logistics suggested putting the boxes with the cargo in a commercial Aeroflot flight.”

But the Russian airline had suspended its flights between Moscow and Damascus in August, so that was no longer an option. It was decided that the parts would travel by Syrian Air instead. “That suggestion was accepted by Damascus almost immediately,” a source told Kommersant. “After the discussions, RT-Logistics started the process of getting export permits and documentation for the delivery.”

RT-Logistics would not comment on the situation.

The source said that the decision to use a civilian airplane to transport the electrical parts was justifiable. First, the cargo presented no danger to passengers or crew. Secondly, it would allow the information about the delivery to remain secret.

Forced down

Of course, they did not expect the Turkish Air Force to seize the plane and cargo. “The Turkish Air Force sent two F-16s to force the plane to land, because they knew about the cargo being transported,” said another source close to the decision-making process. “They would not have risked it if they had not been pretty sure that the cargo was there.”

The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB) has nearly finished its investigation into the information leak. They are nearly certain that the leak came from Syria, not from someone on the Russian side.

This may or may not be related, but it is interesting to note that Syrian Air seems to have changed its flight path for the Moscow-Damascus flight. On the international flight-tracking site flightradar24.com, another Syrian plane, also flight 442, was seen flying last Saturday between Moscow and Damascus. It flew south over Volgograd and then over the Caspian Sea, taking a slight detour to fly over Iran instead of Turkey on its way to Damascus.

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