On the night of September 18, in an unfortunate incident in the fog of war, Syrian air defense mistakenly downed a Russian military IL-20 spy plane with 15 servicemen aboard. The Assad regime had launched a barrage of anti-aircraft missiles targeting planes flying over Latakia. Russian media said the plane lost contact with radar near the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia, and disappeared during “an attack by Israeli F-16s.” Russian media claimed to have “registered the launch of missiles from a French frigate.”
The Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigo, slammed Israel on claiming that its “irresponsible actions” led to the downing of the Russian military aircraft as Israel only warned Russia one minute before launching the strikes. The Russian Defense Minister spoke on the phone with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and told him that Moscow holds Israel wholly to blame for the shooting down of the Russian plane in the waters off Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to cool tensions between the two countries, declared after several hours that Israel was not responsible. “It looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet,” he said. At the same time, he said Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.” “It will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said without elaboration.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called Putin to express sorrow over the death of the plane’s crew, blamed the plane’s loss squarely on Syria, and offered to send Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to share information about the incident.
However, as expected after the hints in President Putin’s declaration, Russia decided to close areas near Cyprus to air, land and sea movement from Thursday until next Wednesday “for the sake of military operations.”
The Israeli air attack was indeed a sensitive, if necessary, operation, near the Russian air base in the area and on the eve of the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
It will probably provoke more retaliation from the Russian side, most possibly the imposition of no-fly zones for Israeli aircraft in the Damascus and Latakia areas. In the short term, it will muddle the already sensitive practical understandings between the two states.
There is a low probability that Russia will use also economic retaliatory measures against Israel, like it did in the case of a Russian fighter jet downed by the Turkish air force in 2015. Then Russia stopped the flow of Russian tourists to Turkey and the imports of goods from Turkey.
It is of interest to cite a remarkable article in published on September 19 by Pavel Felgenhauer in the daily Novaya Gazeta, which directly puts the blame on the Russian side, under the title “The Jews are to blame for everything! The Ministry of Defense is trying to disguise the self-defense.”
Google Translate rendered the Russian-language article as follows:
“On the night of September 18, the F-16 bombers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bombed targets north of the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, where, according to Israeli intelligence, there were Iranian weapons warehouses with products allegedly destined for the radical Lebanese Shi’ite movement Hezbollah. The main Russian air base Khmeimim is also located on the Mediterranean coast near Latakia, but to the south of the city.
“The air defense forces of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of the Assad regime fired back at Israeli raiders and shot down with a long-range missile 5В28 of the S-200V air defense missile system (S-200V) the Russian reconnaissance aircraft IL-20 which came in for landing in Khmeimim, after carrying out reconnaissance of positions of insurgents in the neighboring province of Idlib. Russia accused Israel.”
“After the start of the Russian operation in Syria in 2015, a purposeful program was launched for the revival of the SAA, including its air force and air defense. Russian specialists restored equipment, local teachers were taught and retrained, gratuitous deliveries of components, spare parts and equipment from the presence in domestic arsenals were flown from the Russian Federation via the so-called “Syrian Express”. The SAA’s air force and air defense were saturated with Russian experts and advisers. For the duration of the operation in Syria, the ground and air echelons of the VKS and CAA operated together. They are practically integrated under the supremacy of the Russian military. Therefore, in Moscow, they found out almost immediately that the IL-20 was shot down by Syrian “friendly fire” and not by the Americans, the French, the IDF, or somebody else.
“The situation was extremely unpleasant: the Russian military adviser at the Syrian command post for some reason approved the launch of a long-range missile S-200 missile near our base Khmeimim, which has an official range of 250 km. and a real range of over 300 km. The command post of the connection in Khmeimim was also obliged to control the surrounding airspace. The CP knew about the scheduled flight of IL-20 and had to prohibit the launch of the S-200. But it seems that the Russian military has completely lost control of airspace and control of the air defense system in the area of its main base of the UHF Khmeimim, and as a result, in fact, they shot down their own IL-20.
“It was necessary to somehow explain such a catastrophe to President Vladimir Putin, and because it was the raid of the IDF that launched the “chain of circumstances” that led to the tragedy of the IL-20, the military leadership decided to bring everything to the Jews. It’s better than being responsible for your own sloppiness.”
This reminds of me a déjà vu situation of Russian military intervention in Syria, in the 1970s, which I analyzed in my May 2018 article “How Serious the Russian Threat to Israel in Syria? A Historical Perspective.” I argued there that, in historic perspective, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, have not been successful in providing the necessary strategic umbrella to their allied radical Arab regimes during their wars against Israel and the Russian weapons systems have suffered disgraceful defeats at the hands of the Israeli military.
A few months before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Syrian teams were dispatched to the USSR to train in the use of surface-to-air SA-6 missiles to form the new air defense divisions. A CIA report on Syria stated that during the war in 1973, Soviet advisers supervised the operation of Syrian ground-to-air forces and were present at various headquarters. According to the testimony of an adviser to one of the bombardment squadrons (MiG MF 21) stationed at the Syrian air base in Damir, the consultants helped planning the first air strike.
However, it seems that the Syrian command did not like the Soviet intervention on the front and the advice given by the Russians.
According to Soviet sources, the Syrian command were not ready to listen to the advisers since they wanted to conduct the war according to their understanding and not from what they learned from them. The Soviet chief of staff, Gen. Victor Kulikov, was asked why the Soviet advisers do not correct the Syrians’ mistakes in the conduct of the war. “They do not listen to us… They pretend to be their own strategists,” he replied.
It is this author’s hope that the Israeli leaders will stand firm to the Russian challenge, as long as Russia does not act more firmly against the Iranian attempts to implant itself and its proxies on Syrian soil and build a platform for future, if not immediate, attacks against the Jewish State. The author is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.
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