A war jet flies above Syria near the Israeli Syrian border as it is seen from the Golan Heights, Israel July 23, 2018.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Syria’s downing of a Russian plane on Monday, with the tragic loss of 15 lives, needs to be taken seriously. We are pleased that Israel responded swiftly by sending a high-level delegation to Russia, led by Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin, to help with the investigation – and more importantly, to try to avoid a similar incident in the future.
According to the IDF, following the Israeli air strike on a Syrian military facility near the port city of Latakia – from which systems to manufacture lethal precise weapons were to be transferred from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon – Syria fired missiles that hit a Russian IL-20 aircraft, resulting in the death of all Russian personnel aboard.
Moscow initially placed the blame on Israel, accusing it of violating Syrian sovereignty and of using the Russian plane as cover. Russia also claimed that Israel had warned it of the operation only one minute beforehand. Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself seemed to try to avert an escalation in the crisis, calling it the result of “a chain of tragic circumstances.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with the Russian leader and expressed “regret” at the deaths of the Russian servicemen, while placing the responsibility for the incident firmly on Syria.
According to the IAF’s preliminary investigation, as reported by The Jerusalem Post
’s Anna Ahronheim, the Russian plane was not within the area of operation of Israeli jets, and all jets that took part in the operation had already returned to Israeli territory when the Russian plane was hit.
“The Syrian anti-aircraft batteries fired indiscriminately and, from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air,” said IDF spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis, adding that: “The extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire caused the Russian plane to be hit.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Russia reportedly admitted that its plane had been shot down by a Russian-made missile fired from a Syrian S-200 air-defense battery. As the Post’s Seth J. Frantzman noted in an analysis, Russia could have blamed Syrian air defense for the mistake, but these defenses are Russian-made, so blaming the equipment would have implied a problem with the technology.
This is the most serious incident involving Russia and Israel since Moscow’s military engagement in Syria three years ago, when a deconfliction mechanism was set up between the two countries to prevent any accidental mishaps in Syrian airspace.
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This mechanism has so far proved itself, but Israel must avoid complacency. When Israeli officials admit – or boast – that Israel has carried out some 200 air strikes in Syria over the last year and a half alone, they must take into account that this does not guarantee continued success.
Russia, too, must realize that its presence in Syria, backing Bashar Assad’s murderous regime, carries risks and comes at a price. According to the IDF, the Israeli strikes mainly target advanced precise weapons systems and infrastructure belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is possible that Iran was relying on a belief that Israel would not operate in an area so close to Russian interests.
The delegation led by Norkin no doubt stressed that Israel has to take action against the ongoing attempts by Iran to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah as well as Iranian entrenchment in Syria – a message that is also coming out of Netanyahu’s office.
Efforts must be made to prevent the incident from being exploited by Syria and Iran – including its proxy, Hezbollah. Continued security cooperation between Israel and Russia is vital.
Israel has so far enjoyed an almost free rein to carry out strikes in Syria against targets that it considers to present a clear threat. Israel must ensure that Russia understands that it considers the high-precision weapons being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon as a strategic threat.
Israel is not interested in a conflict with Russia. Both countries need to take steps to make sure that this incident is the start of new improved cooperation, rather than a deterioration in their strategic relationship.
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