The Real Issue Behind the Downing of the Russian Plane

How do we return Israeli-Russian relations to the course that lets the IAF prevent the Iranians from expanding their deployment in Syria, while the IAF provides for the safety of Russian aircraft?

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. June 25, 2012.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Who shot down last month the Russian IL-20 turboprop plane near the Syrian port of Latakia causing the loss of all 15 personnel aboard? The Russian Defense Ministry says Israel was responsible, a claim that has been denied by Israel. Who cares? Wasn’t it simply the tragic result of an imperfectly functioning deconflicting arrangement that had been set up between Israel and Russia months ago?

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Considering the innumerable statements out of Moscow, Damascus and Jerusalem on the event, some observers attach great importance to identifying the person who pulled the trigger, or as the Russians would have it, the person who managed to fool the person who pulled the trigger. The Russians’ announcement last week that they have supplied an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system as part of an upgrade of Syrian air defense, and that Syrian personnel will be able to operate the system within three months, reflects a sense of urgency in Moscow regarding Syrian air defense’s ability to function against the Israel Air Force.

Last week U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Russia’s delivery of the S-300 system a “serious escalation.” Does this mean we might be heading for a technological competition involving Russian electronic-warfare capabilities and missile-interception systems, and the Israeli, and possibly the American, equivalent?

>> With S-300 now in Syria, Putin signals a new long-term strategy for Russia | Analysis

Almost 50 years have passed since the Soviet Union was actively involved on the side of the Arabs in their conflict with Israel. First the Soviets demonstrated their technological superiority in surface-to-air missiles in Vietnam’s skies. Who doesn’t recall or know about the downing of John McCain over Saigon? The massive downing of U.S. aircraft over Vietnam was followed by the deployment of Soviet surface-to-air missile batteries in Egypt and Syria manned by Soviet personnel. Soviet involvement included Soviet pilots flying Soviet planes in dogfights against Israeli fighters.

During the Yom Kippur War, Egyptian and Syrian ground forces advanced under the cover of the surface-to-air batteries and neutralized the IAF’s ability to support Israeli ground forces. It was only some years later during the first Lebanon war that the IAF showed its ability to eliminate the Soviet batteries without losing a single aircraft. That Israeli technological achievement was seen as a debacle for Soviet technology and had the Kremlin masters scolding their tech wizards.

Much has changed since then, and for the better. Israel has good relations with Russia, and Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu meet regularly. Putin continues to make efforts to keep the Iranian forces from deploying near Israel’s borders.

And yet the Russian accusations that Israel was responsible for the loss of the IL-20 near Latakia and the immediate shipment of the S-300 system to Syria without prior consultation with Israel is a cause of some concern.

The question is how we return Israeli-Russian relations to the course that lets the IAF prevent the Iranians from expanding their deployment in Syria, while the IAF provides for the safety of Russian aircraft operating in the area.

Some may believe we need another Israeli-Russian technological contest between aircraft and interceptors with the dangers this would entail in order to return to a normal footing. It’s best to find a way to avoid that. Leave it to Putin and Netanyahu; hopefully they can settle that.