Yes, I know the headline does not make any logical sense. If a Russian plane was downed by Syria, why on earth should Israel get the blame?
Let’s back up a bit and look at the chronology. Israel has had more or less carte blanche to carry out airstrikes in Syria at Iranian targets as long as Russia, which is de facto in control of the airspace, was kept informed. This informal agreement was the result of some very adept tightrope-walking by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his frequent visits and consultations with Moscow.
As the Syrian civil war is starting to wind down, rebel forces are starting to crumble and Iran is pushing its way into the region with ever more aggression and audacity. Israel has made it very clear that it will not tolerate any Iranian presence in the area and has been carrying out numerous airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria to enforce its red lines.
Just before Yom Kippur, IAF planes carried out a major strike against an arms warehouse in Latakia, leaving it in ruins. However the Syrians, shooting their anti-aircraft fire wildly, accidentally shot down a Russian plane flying in the area:
A munitions warehouse in a Syrian military facility appears to have been completely obliterated in an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian port city of Latakia late on Monday, satellite images released Wednesday show.
A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)
A Russian military reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syria during the Israeli strike, killing all 15 crew members.
On Wednesday Syria released video footage from the site of the attack, reiterating its claim that Israel targeted an aluminium factory, not a weapons warehouse in Monday’s strike, according to the Ynet news site. The veracity of the footage could not be independently verified.
On Monday, Syria accidentally shot down the Russian reconnaissance plane when its air defenses swung into action against the Israeli strike on Latakia. The Russian defense ministry initially blamed Israel, saying the IAF jets used the Russian plane as cover.
The Russians seemed to change their minds several times over whether to blame Israel or not:
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin later told reporters that the downing of the plane by Syrian air defenses was a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid the rising tensions between the two countries in the wake of Monday’s airstrike.
In the call, the Israeli leader “noted the importance of the continued security coordination between Israel and Syria that has managed to prevent many casualties on both sides in the last three years,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
The Kremlin said that Putin emphasized that the Israeli attack violated Syria’s sovereignty and also breached the Russian-Israeli agreements on avoiding clashes in Syria. The Russian leader urged Netanyahu “not to allow such situations in the future.”
Israel said its jets had attacked a Syrian military facility that manufactured “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Netanyahu told Putin that Israel was “determined” to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, and the attempts by Iran, which calls for the destruction of Israel, to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weaponry to be used against Israel.
Netanyahu also reiterated that Israel would completely share all the information it had on the circumstances of the raid and suggested sending Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to “deliver all the needed information.”
Unusually for the Israeli defence establishment, the IDF admitted carrying out the strike and expressed sorrow for the victims while not actually taking responsibility:
The Israeli military on Tuesday acknowledged conducting an airstrike against a Syrian weapons facility the night before and “expressed sorrow” for the deaths of 15 Russian soldiers, whose plane was shot down during the attack by Syrian air defenses.
The highly irregular move came as Moscow fumed over the incident and threatened unspecified “measures,” saying it held Israel wholly responsible.
In a statement, the Israel Defense Forces denied all responsibility for the downing of the Russian spy plane, saying that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah were the ones at fault.
“Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” the IDF said, and noted that the Russian plane that was hit “was not within the area of the operation.”
I think that was the right thing to do – to express sorrow but deny responsibility. All too often the IDF has taken responsibility for incidents which later turn out not to have been their fault at all. But by then the story is out and no one listens to corrections. This way is preferable by far.
The reason for the Russian anger is as follows:
The Israeli and Russian militaries maintain what they call a “deconfliction mechanism,” which is meant to coordinate their activities in Syria in order to avoid incidents like this one. Until Monday night, these efforts had largely succeeded in preventing direct or indirect clashes since Russia became more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war three years ago.
The Israeli military said it had coordinated with Russia ahead of the attack, though it did not address Moscow’s specific claims about the amount of time between the notification and the airstrike itself.
In order to calm the Russians’ anger Israel dispatched a delegation to the Kremlin led by the head of the Air Force Amikam Norkin:
An Israeli military delegation held a number of high-level meetings with Russian officials in Moscow on Thursday in an effort to defuse tensions over the downing of a Russian plane off the coast of Syria during an Israeli airstrike earlier in the week.
Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin, center-right, meets with Russian officials in Moscow on September 20, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
The Israeli officials, led by air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, showed their Russian counterparts the Israel Defense Forces’ initial investigation of the incident, which the army said showed Syria, not Israel, to be responsible for the downing of the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft and its 15 crew members.
In addition, the Israeli delegation shared intelligence regarding Iranian efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and to transfer advanced weaponry to terrorist groups in the region, the army said.
“The meetings were held in a good spirit. There was professional, open, and transparent dialogue on various issues, and an emphasis was put on the importance of the two nations’ interests and the continuation of the deconfliction mechanism,” the IDF said, referring to a hotline between the two countries.
Norkin’s delegation was expected to remain in Moscow, continuing to meet with Russian officials, until Friday morning.
A Kremlin spokesman denied an Israeli report that Russian President Vladimir Putin had sought a meeting with Norkin during his visit, according to state media, and made plain that Putin and Norkin would not meet.
There is some interesting analysis by veteran military correspondent Oded Granot at Israel Hayom speculating on what transpired in the hours between Israel being blamed for the Russian plane’s downing and then being exonerated by Vladimir Putin himself:
What transpired in those critical hours between the Russian Defense Ministry’s statements and Putin’s press conference that caused the shift in tone? We can list four possible catalysts:
First, the swift and detailed explanation provided by Israel satisfied the Russians. In short, the Russian plane was nowhere in the vicinity when the weapons facility in Latakia was attacked, and Israeli jets had already returned to Israeli airspace when Syrian anti-aircraft batteries excessively and indiscriminately opened fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer to dispatch the air force chief to Moscow also helped ease tensions.
Second, the main purpose of the Russian Defense Ministry’s sharp criticism of Israel was to divert attention from the fact that the Syrian anti-aircraft operators, who were trained by the Russians, utterly failed to properly identify the Russian reconnaissance plane.
Third, despite the embarrassing incident, Israel and Russia still have a shared interest in removing the Iranians from Syria – which is also why Russia has tolerated over 200 Israeli attacks on Syrian soil the past two years.
Fourth, it stands to reason that the Russians will learn through their own investigation that their sophisticated detection and warning system in Syria failed to alert their plane in due time.
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, appeared to sense a weakening in the relations between Israel and Russian and bragged that they have precision rockets to attack Israel:
Lebanon’s Hezbollah group has obtained precision rockets despite hundreds of Israeli strikes in recent years aimed at cutting off the supply route through Syria, the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah declared Thursday.
“No matter what you do to cut the route,” Nasrallah said, addressing Israel in a televised speech, “the matter is over and the resistance possesses precision and nonprecision rockets and weapons capabilities.”
In response Netanyahu threatened a crushing response against Hezbollah :
“I heard the boastful words that came from Hezbollah,” said Netanyahu during a Bible study session at the Prime Minister’s Residence. “This is coming from the same man who, after 2006, said that if he knew what the Israeli response would have been to the kidnapping of three of our soldiers, he would have thought twice whether to do it.”
The Israeli leader was referring to the events that led to the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah.
“So today I recommend he think not twice, but twenty times. Because if he confronts us, he will receive a crushing blow he can’t even imagine,” added Netanyahu.
Nevertheless Israel is taking no chances and has stepped up its defence of its nuclear facilities.
None of this news is great, volatility in the region is always extremely dangerous, and Israel is tiptoeing between avoiding conflict with Russia on the one hand and looking after its own security on the other. I hope our political and military leaders keep a cool head as they make these fateful decisions.