This week’s incident in Syrian airspace, and the Russian reaction to it, are genuine causes for concern that demand from Israel caution and wisdom in both its military and diplomatic conduct. On Monday night, the air force attacked targets in Syria linked to Iran. Syria’s aerial defense systems tried to thwart the attack, accidently hit a Russian plane and caused the deaths of its 15 crew members.
The initial condemnation published by Russia’s Defense Ministry Tuesday morning, which was exceptionally harsh and blamed Israel for the incident, was an important reminder of the fact that security coordination on a case-by-case basis, even at the highest level, is insufficient when there are conflicting interesting and a massive use of force. In its condemnation, Russia described the Israeli assault as a “deliberate provocation” and said it retain the right to respond to its soldiers’ deaths. The rapidity with which Russia adopted the language of vengeance ought to sound alarm bells in Jerusalem.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a more moderate statement that described the downing of the plane as the result of a series of tragic mistakes rather than an Israeli attack. Nevertheless, he added that the Defense Ministry’s statement was drafted with his approval and that there would be “retaliatory measures,” primarily steps to boost the security of Russian forces in Syria. These steps, he continued, would be visible to everyone.
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After the Russian defense minister reprimanded his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, by phone and Israel’s deputy ambassador to Moscow was summoned for a reprimand, Israel launched diplomatic efforts, including an explanatory phone call to Putin from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an official statement by the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit. In both, Israel expressed regret for the soldiers’ deaths but put the blame on Syria.
It’s too early to tell whether this incident will undermine relations with Russia or simply go down as a regrettable episode. It’s also too early to tell whether Russia will restrict Israel’s freedom of action against Iranian targets in Syria, and if it does, to what degree these restriction will undermine Israel’s ability to thwart Iran’s consolidation of its position in Syria. With the United States absent from the Syrian front, Russia is an essential partner in the battle against such Iranian consolidation.
Nevertheless, regardless of Russia’s response, this incident should serve as a reminder of the fact that Syria isn’t a firing range. According to foreign reports, Israeli airstrikes in Syria began in January 2012, less than a year after Syria’s civil war broke out. Two weeks ago, Israel itself boasted that it had conducted more than 200 airstrikes in Syria since 2017 in an effort to block Iran’s military consolidation in that country. Israel must never forget that military strikes in Syria, like any other belligerent action, are not risk-free.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.