* Russia a key strategic ally for Turkey
* Scant details on contents of seized cargo
* Russia, Turkey at odds over Syria
By Nick Tattersall and Thomas Grove
ISTANBUL/MOSCOW, Oct 12 Standing up to Bashar
al-Assad is one thing. Picking a fight with Vladimir Putin would
be something else entirely.
By forcing down an airliner flying from Moscow, and publicly
accusing Russia of ferrying military equipment to Damascus,
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken what may prove
to be the biggest gamble yet in his Syria policy.
The incident risks damaging a carefully nurtured
relationship with an irascible Russian superpower at a time when
Ankara needs all the friends it can get.
For more than a year the two have kept disagreement over
Syria from spilling over into a relationship governed by Turkish
need for energy supplies, Russian desire for pipeline routes and
mutual security interests across an array of regional hotspots.
"The risk now is that Syria is the wedge that forces apart
what had been a growing and dynamic partnership between Moscow
and Ankara," said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national
security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
"Because the grounding of the plane was done in such a
public manner, Putin will see this as a direct challenge," he
said of the Russian president.
Russia provides nearly two-thirds of Turkey's gas supplies
and often ramps up its exports to the country during frequent
cuts in Iranian gas supplies in the winter. Russia is also set
to help build Turkey's first nuclear power plant.
Russia also plans to build its 63 billion cubic metre South
Stream pipeline through Turkey's waters to feed Europe. The plan
raises Turkey's profile as a partner in the project and gives
both countries incentives to maintain friendship.
Officials in Turkey's energy ministry say they see little
likelihood that those relationships would be harmed over Syria.
"Both countries need each other. This reciprocal need will
ensure that the energy sector remains protected," said Turkish
energy analyst Haluk Direskeneli.
Improved relations with Russia are particularly valuable for
Turkey at a time when its leading role in opposition to Assad
has cost it other friendships in its region. Iran, Assad's
biggest backer, has become embittered, and a decision to host an
Iraqi Sunni fugitive vice president has deeply hurt Ankara's
ties with Baghdad.
"Russia and Turkey had been in the middle of a rapprochement
unique in the history of Russian-Turkish relations. This seems
to have destroyed that, at least for now," said Andrew Kuchins,
head of the Russia program at the Centre for Strategic and
International Studies in Washington.
Erdogan has said the Syrian Air Airbus A-320, forced to land
in Ankara on Wednesday after the Turks received an intelligence
tip-off, was carrying Russian-made munitions bound for Syria's
One source close to the Turkish government suggested Turkey
could have avoided trouble if it had intercepted the flight in
secret and warned the parties involved privately, rather than
making strong public statements. Its rhetoric rather than its
actions were the source of its problems, the source said.
Two days after the plane was intercepted, the Turkish
authorities have yet to give any details on what was in the
seized cargo. Russia has received no response to its requests
for information, a Russian foreign ministry source said.
Turkey, the only member of the NATO Western military
alliance that borders Syria, has felt increasingly isolated over
its role as one of the main opponents of President Assad during
a 19-month-old uprising that has killed about 30,000 people.
Ankara has provided sanctuary for rebel officers and led
calls for international intervention.
The Turkish military has repeatedly fired across the border
over the past ten days in response to gunfire and shelling
spilling over from Syria and has warned of a more robust
response if Syria fails to contain the violence.
It scrambled two fighter planes to the border on Friday
after a Syrian military helicopter bombed the Syrian town of
Azmarin, right on the frontier.
The stance has won it cheers of approval from the United
States, European allies, and NATO - as well as Arab countries
ruled by Sunni Muslims who oppose Assad, a member of the Alawite
minority sect - but little in the way of concrete support.
"Turkey is quite isolated on Syria. We do get routine
expressions of support from NATO, from Washington, but they
don't really have much flesh to them," said Faruk Logoglu, vice
chairman of the main opposition Republic People's Party (CHP).
Russia, meanwhile, has been Assad's biggest supporter at the
United Nations, and sold Syria $1 billion of arms last year. Yet
until now, Ankara has managed to avoid allowing Syria to wreck
its relationship with Moscow.
"It is a sensitive issue but there are ways of decoupling
the Syrian question from the Turkish-Russian bilateral
relationship," former Turkish foreign minister Yasar Yakis, one
of the founding members of the ruling AK Party, told Reuters.
"Whether we will be able to achieve it is another question."
Moscow supports Assad both to protect a rare ally in the
Middle East, and because Putin believes as a matter of principle
that Russia should use its clout to prevent the West from
interfering in countries' internal affairs.
An arms industry source said Moscow had not stopped its
weapons exports to Damascus, despite Western criticism.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on June 9 that Russia
was fulfilling existing contracts for supplies of air defence
systems, for use against external attacks, and is not sending
Syria weapons that could be used in the internal conflict.
Turkish and Russian media reports said the cargo seized in
Turkey included communications equipment, which would fall under
what Moscow insists are legal exports.
A local news website in the city of Tula, around 200 km from
Moscow and home to several defence industry firms, said the
goods came from a factory there which makes air defence systems
and other high precision weapons. A representative from the
factory told Reuters it has contracts with Syria, but declined
to comment further.
A spokesman for Russia's defence export monopoly said it had
no arms on the jet, but individual Russian defence companies can
sign contracts directly with clients in certain situations.
"If there was some radio-electronic equipment, one
possibility is it was illegal smuggling, which means that Syrian
authorities dealt directly with those who produce this equipment
and they didn't inform Russian authorities. A second variant is
that it was a secret operation by the Russian government," said
Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based defence analyst.
He said sales, although legal, may be carried out more
secretively in order to avoid the kind of diplomatic pressure
Russia attracted after shipments of combat helicopters and
ammunition to Syria in two separate incidents earlier this year.
For now, Moscow and Ankara appear to be trying to avoid
statements that would escalate the quarrel.
Putin held a meeting about Syria with his advisory Security
Council on Friday. A report by the state-owned RIA news agency
said deteriorating relations between Turkey and Syria were
discussed, but made no mention of the plane incident.
Putin had been expected to visit Turkey at the start of next
week. Turkish officials said hours before the plane was grounded
that Russia had requested the visit be postponed, citing his
heavy work schedule.
Asked if the postponement was linked to the grounding,
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and Erdogan had
discussed a new date by phone on Monday, two days before the
incident, and Dec. 3 was likely.