The Russian plane downing incident is not yet settled between Moscow and Jerusalem, despite President Vladimir Putin’s relatively forgiving statement and despite Israel’s sending its air force commander to Russia on Thursday morning.
Russia has been sending mixed messages since the incident and, as usual, there is a gap between the Russian statements and actions. It takes a great deal of optimism to believe that Russia’s announcement Wednesday that its closing the airspace west of Syria’s coast for a week, due to a drill, is a mere coincidence.
Asked Thursday morning whether shooting down the Russian aircraft would affect the Israeli air force’s freedom of action over Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman performed more evasion maneuvers than the Russian Ilyushin pilots did on Monday night. Lieberman, who was interviewed on Army Radio’s program “Dekel-Segal," failed to provide a real response. No doubt the party mainly responsible for the incident is Syria, whose air defense operated “unprofessionally and irresponsibly,” as Lieberman described it. But Moscow does not appear inclined to forgive – and will likely try to extract practical advantages from Israel’s embarrassment.
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Israel is convinced it has good explanations for what happened. The air force’s inquiry showed that the Syrians launched massive anti-aircraft fire when the Israeli planes were already back in Israel’s sky. The warning to the Russians, Israel says, was given in keeping with the time frame agreed upon between the two states since they set up the mechanism to prevent friction between Israeli and Russian aircraft in September 2015.
The Russian plane was shot down mainly because of a communication failure – between Israel and Russia, between the Russian aerial control system or between the Syrians and their Russian patrons. Israel denies the first possibility – and this is probably what the air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin told his hosts. Moscow must direct its complaints toward the Syrians. If there’s truth in the reports that arrests were carried out in Syria’s aerial defense ranks, it appears Russia has been doing that as well. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said on Thursday that Putin refused to answer a call from Syrian President Bashar Assad right after the incident.
Israel hopes the Russians will make do with closing the aerial space for a week, and not impose further restrictions – such as banning Israel from flying near their bases in the north of Syria, in a way that could limit the Israeli presence in Syria’s air space to Damascus and south of it. According to foreign media, some of the Israeli air strikes were carried out from a great distance outside Syria’s territory. However, such a Russian restriction could spur the Iranians, the Assad regime and Hezbollah to establish an attack-safe space in the north of Syria. In the long run, it could also enable Iran to continue to strengthen its military hold in this region and expand the weapon smuggling operations to Lebanon.
Lieberman told the Army Radio that the talks he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had with senior Russian officials, in addition to sending Norkin to Moscow, are not to be taken for granted and attest to the good relations between the two countries. It also shows that Israel feels uncomfortable with the incident and its results, even if it caused them only indirectly.
Israel has become used to acting on its northern front almost uninterruptedly in recent years. After its F-16 was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire in February Israel drew the operative conclusions, but continued its attacks, despite the increasing fire against its planes.
Perhaps the week’s events mark the beginning of a broader process, in which Russia will endeavor to limit Israel’s freedom of action. The picture of the campaign in Syria has altered after Assad’s victory in the civil war, and perhaps Israel too will have to adjust its military activity there to a certain extent.