“You always have to remember the first lesson in military history: Don’t mess with the Russians,” a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces said on Monday – without realizing how prophetic his words were.
The incident in the Syrian skies on Monday night has now put Israel in an extremely difficult position with the Russians, and is liable to negatively influence the strategic freedom of action its air force had enjoyed on the northern front until now.
This is true even as Russian President Vladimir Putin absolved Israel of downing the aircraft, saying the incident was a result of a "tragic chain of circumstances."
Israeli fighter jets attacked Iranian-related targets in Syria. Syrian aerial defenses tried to thwart the Israeli attack and accidently hit a Russian Air Force plane with a Russian-made missile.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but the potential consequences are widespread – as evidenced by the initial, harsh condemnation issued by Moscow, which places responsibility for the incident on Israel.
- Putin says Israel didn't down Russian aircraft; Netanyahu offers condolences
- In rush to blame Israel for downed plane near Latakia, Russia may be conducting face-saving op
- Russia says Syrian Idlib offensive off the table, Erdogan and Putin agree on buffer zone
The downing of the Russian intelligence plane with 15 crew members on board first and foremost embarrassed the Kremlin. In the hours following the incident, the Russians actually blamed a French carrier for shooting down the plane. Only on Tuesday did the Russian Ministry of Defense admit that a Syrian anti-aircraft missile had been the reason.
The Russians are very uncomfortable admitting the weapons they provided their allies with led to the death of Russian soldiers. The Russian Defense Ministry's announcement, which included very exceptional wording, stated that the Israeli attack was an irresponsible and “deliberate provocation” that created a dangerous situation. Russia reserves the right to respond to the downing of the plane and the death of its crew, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu told his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman.
On Tuesday afternoon the IDF Spokesperson Unit released a first official statement regarding the incident. In the statement, Israel admitted that the incident began with its strike, expressed condolences for the death of the Russian soldiers – but laid full responsibility on Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
According to the statement, the strike was aimed at thwarting a smuggling operation to Lebanon – part of Hezbollah's "precision project" to mount precise navigation technology on the organization's rocket arsenal. Israel notified the Russian forces in Syria shortly before the strike began.
A debriefing on Tuesday morning which included the prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff and senior Israel Air Force officers indicated that the Israeli fighter jets were already over Israeli airspace when the Syrian rockets were fired. The IDF spokesman said that an initial investigation showed the Syrian barrage to be wide-ranging and imprecise. The Syrians did not make sure the Russians had no planes in the air.
The Russian aircraft was hit as it flew east of Latakia – in other words, farther away from where the Israeli rockets were fired (in this, Israel is rejecting the Russian claim that Israeli fighter jets were hiding behind the Russian aircraft and led to its targeting).
The Russian Defense Ministry's announcement caused quite a bit of unease in Israel. Security brass held talks during the day, running analogous to channels with Russia. About an hour after the IDF's announcement, Putin released his own statement, striking a much more composed tone than the Russian defense ministry. According to Putin, the downing of the jet was a result of a "chain of tragic circumstances." He confirmed Israel did not hit the aircraft and said Russia will take steps to secure its troops and installations in Syria.
The practical implications of Putin's words will be seen over the next two days: Russia could, for example, demand from Israel an even earlier warning before it strikes; it could enforce a no-fly-zone for Israeli fighter jets near its bases in northern Syria; or it could supply Assad's army with new aerial defense systems it has so far withheld.
The Turkish precedent
The Russians have already responded forcefully to previous incidents, under slightly different circumstances, after suffering losses in the Syrian skies.
In November 2015, two months after Russia began deploying its air force in northern Syria, a Russian fighter jet crossed the Turkish border, apparently by accident. Turkish fighter jets downed the Sukhoi, killing one of its crewmen. The second pilot was injured and rescued.
Moscow, which claimed the plane had remained on the Syrian side of the border, imposed numerous sanctions on Ankara during a severe diplomatic crisis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly expressed regret for the incident, and the Turks have since trodden very carefully when it comes to the presence of Russian forces in Syria.
Israel acted smarter than the Turks at the time. A few days after two Russian fighter jets landed at the Khmeimim air base in northwestern Syria, Netanyahu paid an urgent visit to Moscow to meet with Putin. The two decided to set up a mechanism in order to prevent an aerial confrontation: A telephone hotline, through which Israel would avert any potential incident by informing the Russians several minutes in advance, before carrying out any attack near its forces in Syria.
According to several reports, some of the conversations on the hotline are conducted in Russian (by Russian-speaking Israeli army officers) in order to prevent any misunderstandings.
The two leaders have met almost 10 times since that September 2015 meeting. The hotline operates constantly, and in some cases has prevented aerial incidents – such as when Russian drones got close to the Israeli border in the Golan, or when Israel Air Force jets carried out an attack near Russian forces in Syria.
Just two weeks ago, the IDF reported that it had carried out some 200 sorties in Syria since the beginning of 2017. The Israeli bombings commenced, according to foreign press reports, in January 2012, less than a year after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
The bombings were first directed at convoys and arms depots containing advanced weaponry intended for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Over the past 18 months or so, Israel has focused a significant part of its efforts in trying to halt a relatively new trend: The establishment of the Iranian army in Syria. In order to accomplish this goal, Israel has bombed bases, as well as weapons development and production sites, associated with Iran and the Shi’ite militias it operates in Syria.
Israel has generally waged these campaigns successfully, save for one exceptional incident: On February 10, the Syrian defense system downed an Israeli F-16 over Israeli territory, during an Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria.
Russia demanded clarifications from Israel for that incident, too, after it feared its forces were placed in danger. However, Russia used more moderate diplomatic language at the time.
Netanyahu was Putin’s guest on May 9, for the Red Square parade marking the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. A few hours after Netanyahu returned to Israel, a barrage of Iranian rockets was fired at Israeli positions on the Golan; Israel responded with a broad attack on Iranian targets in Syria. The unfolding of events was interpreted as tacit Russian agreement for Israel’s move.
Now, though, matters are far more complicated. It doesn’t really concern the Russians when Israel and Iran fight among themselves. But when events accidently spill over and affect their own servicemen, the initial Russian response is radically different.
Netanyahu will have to draw on all his diplomatic experience and skills in the coming days to calm tensions with Moscow. If Russia decides to demonstrate a hard line for an extended period, it is capable of interfering with Israel’s freedom of action in the Syrian skies.
This is a critical matter for Israel, since the Iranians will be keen to exploit any break in air force activity to increase the smuggling of arms to Lebanon and to bolster their military presence in Syria.
Israel has sparked this crisis with Russia, albeit completely unintentionally, in a way that is liable to influence the situation on the northern front. Considering the scope of the attacks that have been reportedly lately, perhaps it is surprising that things didn’t go awry sooner.
In the months after the Turks downed the Russian plane in Syria, Turkey suffered a series of mysterious cyberattacks. The Russian announcement on Tuesday morning about maintaining the right to respond to the killing of its soldiers should certainly set off alarm bells in Israel’s cyberdefense units as well.