Turkey warns Russia over air space violations from Syria

Friday 02/10/2015
On opposing sides of Syrian conflict

ANKARA - Turkey warned Monday that it was ready to activate rules of engagement if Russian warplanes violate its air space, as Moscow conducted another wave of air strikes in neighbouring Syria.

NATO member Ankara protested to Moscow after its F-16 jets intercepted a Russian fighter plane that violated its air space near the Syrian border over the weekend, forcing it to turn back.

Two Turkish jets were also harassed by an unidentified MIG-29 on the Syrian border, Turkey's army said.

"Our rules of engagement are clear whoever violates our air space," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Haber-Turk television.

"The Turkish Armed Forces are clearly instructed. Even it is a flying bird, it will be intercepted," he added, but played down the idea of "a Turkey-Russia crisis".

"Our channels with Russia remain open," he said, hoping that Moscow would give up on "wrong attitudes".

Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu contacted his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, warning him not to repeat similar incidents.

Turkey and Russia remain on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, with Moscow one of the few allies of President Bashar al-Assad while Ankara backs a solution excluding the embattled leader.

With tensions growing, NATO announced its chief Jens Stoltenberg would meet Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu on Monday to discuss the situation in Syria.

Russian warplanes have been flying over Syrian territory since Wednesday, conducting air strikes on what Moscow says are ISIS group targets in the country's northern and central provinces.

On Monday, Russia's defence ministry said its war planes had carried out strikes on nine ISIS targets in the past 24 hours.

It reported strikes against ISIS command centres, weapon caches, artillery and communication posts in Homs, Idlib and Latakia provinces.

The West has accused Moscow of mainly targeting moderate opponents of the regime.

ISIS has seized large parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq, committing atrocities including beheadings, rape and mass killings, and destroying archaeological and cultural heritage.

On Sunday the jihadists blew up the Arch of Triumph in Syria's ancient city of Palmyra, the country's antiquities director Maamun Abdulkarim said.

"This is a systematic destruction of the city. They want to raze it completely," Abdulkarim told AFP.

The jihadist group had already destroyed several famed tombs, two temples including the 2,000-year old Temple of Bel, and the Lion of Athena statue.

Under ISIS's extreme interpretation of Islamic law, artefacts are considered idolatrous, and must be destroyed, although the group has also smuggled and sold antiquities.

Analysts say ISIS destroys historical artefacts for propaganda value, raising their profile among potential new recruits and grabbing headlines.

"It's a fairly low-risk, cheap way for ISIS to really maximise its international infamy," said Charlie Winter, analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation.

He said ISIS might have destroyed the celebrated arch as an attempt to recapture international attention after the Russian air strikes.

Palmyra fell to ISIS in May, but the Syrian army has advanced towards the city from the west and a political figure close to the regime said Russia hoped to help retake Palmyra "to show that they are protecting heritage in Syria".

There are fears that ISIS may speed up its razing of the ancient site as the army approaches.

"The more the regime encroaches on Palmyra, the more likely it will be that it will be destroyed," Winter said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called for air strikes in Syria to target not only ISIS but other groups "considered as terrorists".

He said the "most terrifying risk" was that the conflict becomes a religious war.

"When you see a conflict which at first was a civil war, becoming a regional war involving international powers, Russia, Iran, the US, the risks are serious," he said.

ISIS has taken advantage of the chaos in Syria caused by the four-year civil war, which has killed more than 240,000 people and sent millions fleeing, to expand its influence in the country.

A year-long US-led air campaign has failed to vanquish the jihadists, and Western governments have warned that Russia's involvement could make things worse.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Monday that Russia was pursuing a "losing strategy" in Syria.

"Russia has escalated the civil war, putting further at risk the very political resolution and preservation of Syria's structure of future governance it says that it wants," he said.