Putin Says Israel Didn't Down Russian Aircraft; Netanyahu Offers Condolences

Earlier, Russia blamed downed military aircraft on Israel's 'deliberate provocations' striking Syria ■ France denies involvement, U.S. says plane shot down by Syrian air defense systems

Russian Air Force Ilyushin Il-20
Kirill Naumenko/Wikipedia

>> Updates: Putin absolves Israel, but crisis with Moscow could reach all the way to Iran ■ Friend or foe? A deadly Syrian-Russian screwup

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that Israel was not responsible for the downing of a Russian military aircraft during a strike on Syria Monday night. "It looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn't shoot down our jet," he said.

Putin's comments were a shift in tone after Russia accused Israel earlier of a "hostile provocation" in striking the Syrian port city of Latakia, which led to the downing of a Russian military plane with 15 servicemen on board. 

When asked about comparisons to Turkey's downing of a Russian aircraft in 2015, Putin said: "This is a different situation. The Turkish fighter jet knowingly downed our plane."

The Russian president noted that the Defense Ministry's statement, vowing a retaliatory response, was "fully coordinated" with him. "The retaliatory measures will be directed above all to boosting the security of military men and installations in Syria," he said. "These will be measures everyone will see." 

Infographic of Monday night's alleged attack and incident
Russian Defense Ministry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Putin and expressed his condolences, but added that the responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane rests with Syria. He also reiterated that Israel is determined to prevent Iran from gaining a military foothold in Syria and thwart Tehran's attempts to aid Hezbollah with lethal weapons against Israel.

In the call with Putin, Netanyahu stressed the importance of continuing the security coordination with Russia, which he said has saved many lives on both sides over the past three years. He offered to send Russia all necessary details in order to investigate the incident, including dispatching the Israel Air Force chief to Moscow.

Shortly later, the Kremlin said Putin told Netanyahu that agreements reached between Russia and Israel regarding the prevention of dangerous incidents "were not observed." The statement added that Putin asked Netanyahu to avoid such situations in the future. 

The Kremlin's statement came after Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow told Israel it will take all necessary measures to protect its military personnel in Syria. 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also responded to the downing of the aircraft, expressing sorrow for the deaths of Russian aircrew members. Pompeo said that the incident “reminds us of the need to find permanent, peaceful and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region.” He added that the incident brings to light “the danger of tragic miscalculations in Syria’s crowded theater of operations.”

Pompeo did not mention Israel in his statement, but he did say that the downing of the aircraft “underlines the urgent need to resolve the Syrian conflict and to end Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria, which are a threat to the region.”

Screen capture of Twitter video allegedly showing strike attributed to France and Israel in Syria, September 18, 2018
Twitter

'Irresponsible actions'

Earlier on Tuesday, Russia's Defense Ministry accused Israeli military planes of creating a "dangerous" situation in Latakia, near where the aircraft was downed by Syrian air defense systems, as it claimed Israel warned Moscow about the planned operation one minute beforehand, adding that it was not enough time to get the the plane to safety.

The Defense Ministry said 15 Russian military service people died because of Israel's "irresponsible actions," adding that it reserves the right to take appropriate measures after Israel's hostile actions.

According to the ministry, the Israeli F-16 jets carrying out the airstrikes used the Russian plane as a cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. 

"Hiding behind the Russian aircraft, the Israeli pilots put it in the line of fire of Syrian anti-aircraft systems. As a result the Il-20 ... was shot down by the (Syrian) S-200 missile system," Konashenkov said. 

He said the Israeli pilots "could not have failed to see the Russian aircraft, as it was coming in to land from a height of 5 km (three miles). Nevertheless, they deliberately carried out this provocation," Konashenkov said. 

Israeli army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said in a statement that Israel "expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,"  adding that Israel holds the Assad regime fully responsible for the incident.

"Israel also holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organization" for the event, said the statement. "Overnight, Israel Defense Forces fighter jets targeted a facility from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon." 

Manelis said Israel and Russia have a deconfliction system that has proven itself effective many times in recent years, and that "this system was in use tonight as well."

An initial inquiry by IDF top brass and the prime minister's bureau, Manelis said, showed that extensive and inaccurate anti-aircraft fire by Syrian forces downed the Il-20. 

"When the Syrian Army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, IAF jets were already within Israeli airspace," said the statement, adding the Ilyushin was not present in the area of the operation during the Israeli airstrike.

It also said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries fired indiscriminately, "and from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air."

The statement concluded by saying Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian government as to confirm the facts of the inquiry. An Israeli political official later echoed these comments as well, adding that Putin and Netanyahu are expected to speak soon.

Israeli Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry following the incident, according to Russian media, though the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, that Moscow holds Israel wholly to blame for the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria. 

The Kremlin was extremely concerned by the incident and Putin expressed his condolences for those who were killed, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

The Russian Defense Ministry said a recovery operation in the Mediterranean Sea is underway and that it has already located the wreckage in the sea and has retrieved some bodies and some fragments of the plane.

A U.S. official earlier said Washington believed the aircraft, which is an Il-20 turbo-prop plane used for electronic reconnaissance, was inadvertently shot down by anti-aircraft artillery operated by Moscow's ally, the Syrian government.

Around the time the plane disappeared, the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, near a Russian airbase to which the Il-20 was returning, came under attack from "enemy missiles" and missile defence batteries responded, Syrian state media reported.

The defense ministry in Moscow said the aircraft was returning to the Russian-run Hmeymim airbase in Latakia province when, at about 11 P.M. Moscow time (20:00 GMT), it disappeared from radar screens. 

The plane was over the Mediterranean Sea about 35 km (20 miles) from the Syrian coastline, Russia's TASS news agency quoted the ministry as saying in a statement. 

"The trace of the Il-20 on flight control radars disappeared during an attack by four Israeli F-16 jets on Syrian facilities in Latakia province," the statement was quoted as saying.

"At the same time Russian air control radar systems detected rocket launches from the French frigate Auvergne which was located in that region."

The fate of the 14 people on board the missing plane is unknown, and a rescue operation has been organized out of the Hmeymim base, the ministry said.

The Israeli military had no reaction, saying it does not comment on "foreign reports." French military spokesman Colonel Patrik Steiger told Reuters. "We deny any involvement." 

A series of unusual airstrikes on Syria were attributed to Israel on Monday night. The official SANA news agency reported that ten people were injured in the attack, eight of whom were shortly discharged after being admitted to a nearby hospital.

According to Syrian media, missiles were fired toward military targets close to three large cities in the north of Syria: Lattakia, Homs and Hama.

In recent weeks there has been a significant uptick in the amount of reports attributing attacks to Israel. Previous attacks, according to foreign media, mostly targeted the area of the Damascus International Airport.