Edin Omanovic is a researcher and project coordinator for the SIPRI Countering Illicit Trafficking–Mechanism Assessment Projects (CIT-MAP). He is currently researching the use of overflight denial as a tool to counter the trafficking of small arms and light weapons and enhance the enforcement of arms embargoes.
The interception on 10 October 2012 of a Syrian passenger aircraft travelling from Moscow to Damascus was the latest in a long line of actions taken by Turkey to stem the flow of arms across its territory. Given the current international impasse over the conflict in Syria, practical measures such as the interception of aircraft will become increasingly important for states seeking to restrict Syrian Government forces’ access to military-related goods from external sources.
Aircraft found to be carrying ‘non-civilian’ goods
Late last year Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explicitly stated that Turkey would be willing to take measures to ‘stop and confiscate’ any shipment of military supplies, by air or sea, to Syria in contravention of its own unilateral embargo.
Several other states, including Iraq and Lithuania, have adopted similar measures that aim to prevent military forces in Syria from importing equipment by denying the use of their airspace. This underlines the growing use of controlling access to airspace by states seeking to better enforce embargoes.
The aircraft intercepted by Turkish Air Force jet fighters – a Syrian Air A320-200, registration YK-AKE, on a scheduled flight from Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport to Damascus via Aleppo – was found to have ‘non-civilian’ goods on board. As Turkish governmental authorities presumably consider these goods to be ‘munitions of war’, the carriage of such goods would have needed to be reported to Turkish aviation authorities under Article 35 of the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention).
The strategic importance of Turkish airspace
Turkey is well placed to stop illicit arms shipments. Not only does it have the military and institutional capacity, but it also has a large airspace and, due to its location, is a transit point between weapons manufacturers and maintenance centres in Eastern Europe and Russia and end-users in the Middle East and East Africa subject to United Nations or unilateral embargoes.
Turkish authorities have previously intercepted embargo-violating arms transfers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and have inspected cargo flights to Lebanon and Sudan. In March 2011 Turkish authorities also seized embargoed military equipment from an Iranian aircraft scheduled to land in Aleppo.
Supplementing embargoes with practical action
The interception of international flights, especially passenger flights, can attract significant media attention, highlighting the continuing military supplies to the Syrian Government as well as a state’s own capacity—and will—to restrict them.
Other measures that states have taken to enforce unilateral and multilateral arms embargoes by restricting their transportation include denial of overflight, stringent implementation of safety standards, withdrawal of insurance, and, in the maritime domain, ejecting suspect ships from their national shipping register (‘de-flagging’).
While no agreement on a UN arms embargo on Syria seems to be in prospect, measures such as this will be of increasing interest to states seeking to limit external military supplies to the Syrian Government.