At a news conference Thursday evening, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the cargo included unspecified “munitions,” adding that an investigation was continuing.
“This was munitions from the Russian equivalent of our Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation being sent to the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, in a reference to the state-run manufacturer that supplies Turkey’s military.
Turkish news reports indicated that the equipment included electronic communications devices, but a Turkish official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject declined to elaborate on what exactly was found, other than to describe it as “military equipment.”
Syria denied that there was any improper cargo aboard the plane and accused Turkey of an act of “air piracy.” All the items on board the plane had been properly registered, Syria’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “The cargo did not include any types of weapons or prohibited goods,” it said.
The interception followed a week of sky-high tensions between Syria and Turkey that began with the deaths of five civilians in a Syrian mortar strike against a Turkish village. Turkey fired back, triggering five days of mortar exchanges that raised fears that a full-blown war could be imminent.
Although the artillery fire has ceased, the interception of the Airbus plane points to Turkey’s growing frustration with the crisis unfolding along its borders as Syrian government forces battle rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has been inundated with nearly 100,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the violence, and stray shells had crashed into the Turkish side of the border several times in recent months, without causing casualties.
Turkish officials suspect, however, that though those earlier strikes apparently involved errant shells fired by Assad’s security forces struggling to hold ground against rebel advances across northern Syria, last week’s deadly strike was different because six shells fired simultaneously landed in the same village, and the mortar rounds continued even after Turkey retaliated.
Erdogan criticized at home
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s government has come under growing domestic criticism for a policy that has aggressively supported the Syrian opposition without demonstrating any discernible benefit for Turkey or, seemingly, accelerating Assad’s departure.
“Turkey’s Syria policy is on the verge of proving to be a complete fiasco,” columnist Emre Uslu wrote in the Today’s Zaman newspaper last week.