Russia’s harsh condemnation of what it alleged was an air strike on Syria Monday night indicates an escalation in Moscow’s rhetoric. This comes after 15 Russian servicemen were killed when their IL-20 aircraft was hit by a Syrian S-200 anti-aircraft missile that mistook it for an enemy aircraft.Moscow says, “Israeli pilots placed him [the IL-20] under the fire of Syria’s air defense.” It is not in keeping with the “spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to adequate response.” Russia has blamed Israel for air strikes in Syria in the past. In early April Moscow condemned Israel, and in late April said the strikes were unacceptable. But the April round of condemnations did not include the level of rhetoric of the September 18 statement. This is because Russian servicemen were not killed.The new Moscow statement did not have to blame Jerusalem and allege Israeli pilots put the Russians in danger. It could have blamed Syrian air defense. Syrian air defenses are Russian-made so blaming the equipment for making a mistake would actually be of self-critique regarding the technology. Also there is a sense in the statement that Moscow thinks Israel deliberately created a complex stratagem near Latakia to purposely confuse the air defense. Moscow alleges Israel only warned Russia via a “hotline” one minute before the attack.
This did not give the IL-20 time to descend and land at Khmeimim, an air base where Russia has planes. Russia also says that the airstrikes were carried out over a French frigate stationed off the coast which fooled air defenses into thinking cruise missiles were being fired. It says Israel used the cover of the Russian plane as well.This indicates several different aspects of the current situation in Latakia. It means there are numerous Russian, Syrian, and other forces operating in close vicinity and that any kind of attack puts the rest in danger; this was previously known. Russia has a naval facility and planes. Iran has alleged factories. Turkey is nearby in the north. Western countries have naval assets off the coast. The recent incident illustrates that these forces don’t communicate well together. And it indicates that air strikes on Latakia or neighboring Hama must navigate a web of defenses and complex military systems. This is a test of Russian and Syrian air defense. Russia reportedly has its S-400 system in the area and these attacks appear to show Moscow is not willing to use the S-400. Moscow is also selling the S-400 to Turkey and other buyers. This puts Russia in a bind. If it uses this sophisticated air defense it could escalate the conflict, but if it doesn’t use it then Syria will wonder why it isn’t defending its own planes and assets in Syria.For Israel this poses a challenge. Israel has warned that Iranian forces must leave Syria. At the same time Jerusalem has good relations with Russia and Moscow has indicated it respects Israel’s concerns about Iranian involvement in Syria. This delicate balance now is at risk of changing after Latakia. The death of Russian servicemen cannot be ignored by Moscow and Russia shows that it doesn’t want to accept that this was a terrible mistake, but rather seeing the airstrikes as endangering Russian lives.
Russia says Israel indirectly to blame for downed plane over Syria, September 18, 2018 (Reuters)