Analysis

In Rush to Blame Israel for Downed Plane Near Latakia, Russia May Be Conducting Face-saving Op

Something strange was definitely in the air over Syria on Monday night, with British and French forces both reportedly present – but Israel may now have to lay low for a while and let Russian pride recover

File photo: A Russian Air Force Ilyushin Il-20.
AFP

The events of Monday night over Syria’s Mediterranean coast are still unclear. What is known is that a target near the city of Latakia was attacked, Syrian anti-aircraft missiles were launched against the incoming missiles and attacking aircraft, and a Russian electronic-intelligence plane flying offshore was hit and crashed into the sea, with the loss of 15 crew members.

>>Israel strikes Syria, Russia gets hit: A crisis with Moscow could reach all the way to Iran | Analysis

Israeli leaders have previously acknowledged carrying out frequent attacks in Syria against Iranian-linked targets, to prevent the buildup of Iran’s Quds Force in Syria and the transfer of advance weapons system to Hezbollah. However, Israel rarely acknowledges specific attacks, and this one seems different on a number of counts from airstrikes attributed to it by foreign media.

First, it was against a target near Russia’s main base in Syria – Khmeimim air base. While such attacks aren’t entirely unprecedented, they are rare.

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

Second, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released official statements blaming not only Israel for attacking Syria, but also claimed that a French naval vessel sailing near Syria’s coast had fired missiles. France denied any involvement in the downing of the Russian Ilyushin Il-20, but, interestingly, did not deny launching missiles.

On August 21, France joined the United States and Great Britain in warning Syrian President Bashar Assad that it would use military force if it had evidence of any use of chemical weapons by his regime in its upcoming campaign against the rebel enclave of Idlib.

Something was obviously going on Monday night. Not only Russian and (allegedly) Israeli and French aircraft and missiles were in the air. Civilian radar also tracked British Royal Air Force aircraft, which, unusually, had switched on their transponders and gone into holding patterns – most likely to avoid being somehow involved in the exchange of fire over Latakia. The Ilyushin Il-20 was not so fortunate.

The Russian statements were unusually detailed and quick to apportion blame – to the Syrians for actually shooting down their plane. And to Israel for “intentionally creating a dangerous situation” that allowed it to happen, and for warning them about the impending attack only “one minute” in advance.

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

There is little reason to doubt the basic details. Israel likely carried out the airstrike (France’s involvement remains an intriguing and still undeciphered element); Russia was given advance warning (whether or not this was sufficient will remain the sticking point); and the Ilyushin plane was almost certainly caught in the line of fire of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

But the Russian accusation seems, on the face of it, rather disingenuous.

At all levels of the Israeli political and military establishment – from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu downward – great care has been taken to avoid any friction with the Kremlin and Russian forces operating in Syria since September 2015. The “deconfliction” process between the Israeli and Russian air forces, including a hotline between Russia’s operation centers at the Khmeimim air base and Israel Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv, has been in place for three years and by all accounts has worked well. Misunderstandings have been quickly resolved in private.

It is hard to imagine Israel risking its arrangement with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has allowed it free rein to operate against Iranian targets in Syria. Russian forces have been given advance warning of airstrikes, and they have kept clear. It could be that this specific target and its location warranted jeopardizing that arrangement, but this seems highly unlikely. And there are other, more likely causes for the Ilyushin’s loss.

The Syrian and Russian air forces and air-defense batteries work together, in joint operation rooms and air-traffic control centers. The Syrians use Russian-made aircraft and missiles. The Ilyushin would have been equipped with IFF (identification, friend or foe) transponders and both militaries will have procedures to prevent “friendly fire” incidents. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile, made in Russia, should not have shot down a friendly Russian aircraft.

The incident could have been caused in part by (intentionally) late notification by Israel – but it certainly was a screwup between the Russian and Syrian allies. The British aircraft in the area seemed to be prepared to keep out of trouble, so why not the Russians?

The speed with which Russia rushed to blame Israel, before a proper operational investigation of Monday night’s events could be held, points to a screwup of the kind Russia never likes to admit to in public.

The military professionals on either side will know the truth, though. Was Israel slower than usual in notifying its Russian counterparts? Or was the main cause of the Ilyushin loss a technical glitch or faulty procedures on the Syrian or Russian side? It could have been a combination of factors.

Whatever the causes, Israel may have to limit itself in the upcoming weeks and months. The Russians know the truth, but in public have to blame someone for their high-profile setback and human tragedy. They can’t blame their Syrian allies.

Israel will have to take the rap in public, but if the close relationship between Netanyahu and Putin is anything to go by, they’ll find a way to get over this and Israeli aircraft will again be striking Iranian targets in Syria in the not-too-distant future.