The downing by a Syrian SA-5 missile of the Russian Ilyushin 20 surveillance aircraft off the Syrian coast near Latakia last week, which led to the loss of fifteen military personnel aboard, was an accident waiting to happen. Measures aimed at avoiding conflicts between aircraft belonging to different armed forces that are operating in the same airspace are in any case a difficult business. Arrangements must be followed meticulously to the letter by both sides, leaving little margin for error. Such were the arrangements put into place by mutual agreement between Moscow and Jerusalem that have for months permitted the Israel Air Force to use Syrian airspace to attack Iranian targets in Syria.
What was a difficult arrangement has become close to mission impossible because of the participation of Putin’s Syrian partner, Bashar Assad. No doubt, if he had his choice, Putin would have preferred another partner, one that is reliable and responsible. But Putin had no choice. If he wanted to establish Russian air and naval bases in Syria he had to accept Assad as part of the bargain. They have become close allies since Russia had become instrumental in restoring Assad’s rule in most of Syria through use of its air force, instructors, and mercenaries. They even had to accept the Iranian presence there as part of the deal.
This volatile situation has been greatly exacerbated by Assad’s acquisition of a massive and dense air defense system. Lacking an effective air force, he is emphasizing air defense in an attempt to counter the threat he perceives from the Israel Air Force. Each Israeli action in Syrian skies is followed by bombastic announcements purporting to report Syrian interception of Israeli missiles used to attack Iranian targets in Syria. Except for the downing of a single Israeli F-16 that had been returning from a mission over Syria while already over Israeli airspace, they have had little to show for their efforts.
The Syrians are constantly engaged in attempts to upgrade their air defense system by the addition of more modern Russian equipment. So far the Russians have not agreed to supply them with Russia’s latest surface-to-air missile systems. They could present an increased challenge to the Israel Air Force. Whether they would be more effective against the Israel Air Force is not certain.
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Russian instructors are deeply involved in the operation of the Syrian air defense system. Whether they are capable of completely controlling the actions of their Syrian charges is not clear. The Syrian response to the action of Israeli aircraft over Syrian airspace seems to be a massive indiscriminate launching of ant-aircraft missiles in almost all directions. The missile that brought down the Russian aircraft was evidently part of such a barrage.
Who pulled the trigger? Was it a Syrian or his Russian instructor? We may never know the answer to this question. Whoever it was, he did not bother to attempt to ascertain the identity of the target. A look at the radar screen should have made it obvious that this slow moving, propeller-driven aircraft was not a fighter aircraft. This kind of carelessness or lack of professionalism may be typical of the operation of the Syrian air defense system, even under Russian tutelage.
Considering the on-going Russian commitment to Assad, which in the past has even included a denial that he had used chemical weapons, it was not unexpected that the Russian spokesmen would make an attempt to put the blame for the tragic incident on Israel and leave the Syrians who shot down the Russian aircraft blameless. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that the Russians will now take a close look at how the Syrian air defense system works and attempt to make improvements wherever possible. Whether such improvements will be sufficient to prevent a similar accident in the future remains to be seen.