Is Israel’s military honeymoon with Russia in Syria over?

Jerusalem also considered sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to visit Moscow to stop the diplomatic crisis from spiraling even further.

Russian Air Force Ilyushin Il-20M  (photo credit: KIRILL NAUMENKO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Russian Air Force Ilyushin Il-20M
For the first time in decades, the operational freedom of the Israel Air Force may truly be at risk – not because of terrorist groups or countries bent on Israel’s destruction, but because of Russia – and intense efforts have been put into motion on all sides to prevent that from occurring.
The downing of the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 plane by a Syrian air-defense missile during Israeli air strikes against Iranian targets has led to one of the lowest points in the relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow in years.
The deaths of 15 Russian servicemen is a major embarrassment for Moscow, which has positioned itself as the main superpower in the region and has placed the blame of the downing of the plane last week squarely on Israel, accusing it of using the Il-20 as cover to carry out the strikes on targets in Syria.
Israel, meanwhile, has placed the blame for the incident on the Syrian regime, which used a Russian-made antiaircraft battery to bring down the plane during a strike by Israeli F-16 fighter jets on a Syrian military facility near the coastal city of Latakia on September 17.
Following the incident, Israel sent an IDF delegation to Moscow headed by IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin to present the Russians with all of the facts regarding the incident, including intelligence gathered prior to the attack, a recording of the hotline call between Tel Aviv and the Khmeimim Air Base before the Israeli operation, and the findings of the IDF’s own investigation into the accident.
Russian officials reportedly rebuffed an Israeli attempt to dispatch a high-level government delegation to Moscow led by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat along with the IAF delegation led by Norkin.
According to reports, Jerusalem also considered sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to visit Moscow to stop the diplomatic crisis from spiraling even further.
But Russia, which has blamed the Israeli military and not the government, preferred instead to meet only with Norkin, to hear his team’s explanation for the deadly incident.
While it is indisputable that Syrian forces are the ones that shot down the Russian plane using a Russian-made missile defense system, nevertheless, despite the Israeli delegation’s visit to Moscow and telephone calls between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia is ignoring the findings of the IAF’s investigation.
The question is why: to save face for an operational blunder, to which Russia, which helps manage Syria’s air defense network, bears some responsibility? Or because Moscow has decided that the downing provides a long-sought-after pretext to void its agreement with Israel, which up until now has allowed the IAF to attack targets in Syria with relative impunity?
The answer is likely both. As many analysts have suggested, the downing of the Ilyushin Il20 has revealed fundamental problems with Russian air defenses in Syria, particularly the robustness of its IFF (identification friend or foe) electronic signals carried by its aircraft.
The fact that it didn’t work to save one of its own spy planes is a profound embarrassment for its military, especially since the Russian officers who operate the air defenses alongside Syrian troops failed to properly supervise the Syrians who pressed the launch button for the intensive antiaircraft fire that ended up taking down the Russian plane.
Accusing Israel of using the Russian plane as shield from the missiles is likely nothing more than a shield against the failure of its troops deployed in Syria.
Equally vexing has been the pounding Russia’s allies in Syria have taken in recent months at the hands of the IAF. With Israel’s recent admission that it had struck Syria over 200 times since 2017, Moscow needs to show some resolve, to demonstrate its commitment to its primary strategic partners in the region, which remain Damascus and Tehran.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
Israel rarely comments on foreign reports of military activity in Syria and has remained silent on hundreds of other strikes since the outbreak of the country’s civil war, which Russia joined in September 2015.
Some of the strikes attributed to Israel even occurred in areas where the Russians have deployed their advanced S-300 and S-400 missile defense batteries. But thanks to a deconfliction mechanism in place, no Israeli jets were ever at risk.
According to the IDF, the strikes, which mainly targeted advanced weapons systems and infrastructure belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, were aimed at preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
Following the downing of the Russian plane, Moscow announced it would supply Syria with the advanced S-300 missile defense system and impose electronic countermeasures over Syria’s coastline that would suppress satellite navigation, onboard radar systems and the communications of warplanes attacking targets in Syrian territory.
Emboldened by Moscow’s announcement, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Wednesday that “Israel, which got used to carrying out many attacks under different pretexts, would have to recalculate and reconsider before attacking again.”
But while some think the supplying of S-300 systems to the Syrians may jeopardize Israeli missions over Syria, according to foreign reports Israeli pilots have already trained to defeat the system.
NATO member Greece, for example, has operated the S-300 since the late 1990s, and Israeli aircraft have trained in its airspace as well as in Cyprus, undoubtedly giving it an opportunity to learn its tracking system in real time.
“The S-300 delivery to Syria is overinflated,” wrote Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of Military Intelligence, on his Twitter account on Tuesday. The “S-300 doesn’t change the strategic balance. No air defense system is impregnable or indestructible. Israel has F-35s which were designed with exactly such systems in mind.”
“If S-300 batteries are operated by Russians – that’s not new, with Russian S-400 operating in Syria for years, never launching against Israel or US aircraft. If Syrian crews operate them, Israel will know how to hit it. Russian air defense systems’ reputation will take a hit,” he added.
Netanyahu, too, warned Tuesday, before flying to New York to address the UN General Assembly, that Israel will continue to act against Iranian entrenchment in the region, even with Moscow supplying the system to the Syrians.
“In the past three years, Israel has been very successful in preventing the Iranian military from setting up bases in Syria and attempting to supply lethal weapons to Hezbollah. We did this with maximum and successful security coordination with the Russian military,” said Netanyahu.
“We will continue to act to prevent the Iranian military buildup in Syria,” he continued. “We will do what is necessary to defend Israel’s security.”•