A Syrian S-200 air defense system inadvertently shot down a Russian surveillance plane over the eastern Mediterranean Sea on Sept.17 while countering Israeli air strikes against targets in the country’s coastal Latakia governorate. Fifteen Russian servicemen lost lives as a result. The aircraft was returning to Hmeimim air base.
The Il-20 is a military version of the Il-18 turboprop airliner, which carries external antennae and special equipment to conduct reconnaissance missions. It has a cross section much larger than the Israeli F-16, which operated in the area on that day. It’s an open question why the identification friend-or-foe (IFF) system failed.
According to the Russian Defense Ministry’s statement made shortly after, the blame lies with Israel as its fighters conducting attacks on targets in Syria used the Il-20 as a cover, exposing it to fire from Syrian air defenses. Israel did use the channels of communication but too late to make the Russian aircraft alter the course. The notification came just a minute in advance. Obviously, Israel is responsible for that.
Gary Koren, the Israeli Ambassador in Russia, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow for a talk. Russia and Israel have largely maintained friendly relations in recent years and have certain mutually agreed on procedures to prevent incidents in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visited Moscow several times recently to discuss the coordination of efforts in Syria. He was among the guests at a military parade on Red Square on May 9 commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russian President Putin is extremely concerned about the situation but he believes it was rather “a result of a chain of tragic errors.” Indeed, the incident was caused by a mistake made by the Syrian military operating the air defense systems confused by Israeli tactics. It shows how susceptible the conflict in Syria is to miscalculations, such as friendly fire incidents.
It was the third time Israeli forces attacked targets in Syria this month. Any of those operations could provoke a clash. Over the course of the conflict, Israel has delivered many airstrikes against targets in Syria. The actions are illegal from the point of view of international law. And each time Israel takes a serious risk.
Russia will probably respond. It has a wide range of options, including supplies of S-300 to Syria. They could be manned by Russian personnel. A lot depends on the way Israel would react. Condolences are not enough. After all, Israel was the only one who acted on Sept. 17 in blatant violation of international law. There is no ground to believe there was any evil intent but urgent measures must be taken to enhance the efficiency of de-confliction and prevent such tragedies in the future. It’s doubtful that from now on Israel will continue to enjoy the same freedom of action in the Syrian airspace as before the incident took place.
While insisting on its right to use force in Syria, Israel has never really tried to use diplomacy. It’s rather symbolic that on the same day (Sept.17) – the eve of Yom Kippur – the Putin-Erdogan summit in Sochi resulted in great success. The parties reached a compromise on the situation in Idlib. There will be no bloodshed there and no refugee flows will pour into Europe. Russian and Turkish troops are to enforce a 15-20 km deep new demilitarized zone cleared from radical groups of rebels. By Oct. 10, the militants will withdraw their hardware from the area. Russian and Turkish military police would then carry out coordinated patrols of the zone starting October 15.
One should give the devil his due – the leaders achieved a real diplomatic breakthrough, which was welcomed by the Syrian government as a positive development. Add to it the resumption of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights thanks to the Russian forces that arrived there in August. By going farther in its cooperation with Russia in Syria, Israel could gain a lot more than by adopting an openly hostile attitude toward the Syrian government and using force against it.
Many ill-wishers had cherished hopes before the summit that Russia and Turkey would clash over Idlib as their interests appeared to be divergent. No way. The parties will boost their cooperation. Actually, the two nations are now involved in a major joint peacekeeping operation. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this development. The two major actors – Russia and Turkey, a NATO member – join together to save human lives. It happens against the background of Israel, a NATO partner, indiscriminately striking the Syrian territory not caring much about civilian casualties. It is egged on by the US, France, and the UK throwing their staunch support behind it.
The difference in approaches is clear for all to see. It’s high time for Israel to realize that Russia’s diplomatic efforts in Syria enhance, not diminish, its security. With the Russia-Turkey peacekeeping operation underway, it would be logical to bring the UN in and make the peaceful settlement in Syria an international effort with funds provided collectively for the country’s restoration.