'Blame for the tragedy lies entirely with the IAF'

Accusing IDF of deception, Russia blames Israel for downing of spy plane

Moscow rejects version presented by Israeli Air Force chief, maintains its original claim that F-16 pilots used Russian reconnaissance craft as cover during missile attack

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Moscow on Sunday blamed Israel for the downing by Syrian anti-aircraft fire of a Russian spy plane during an Israeli air raid in Syria last week, saying its military had been misled by the Israel Defense Forces about the time and location of the airstrike.

In a press briefing, the Russian defense ministry rejected the findings of the IDF about the incident and insisted that the Israeli pilots who conducted the raid on a Syrian military facility in Latakia used the Russian reconnaissance aircraft as cover during their assault — something Israel has repeatedly denied.

It also said Israel did not give Russia sufficient warning time ahead of the attack, and that it did not accurate information on the specific target of the attack. The Russian plane was thus unable to move out of the target area in good time, it said.

“The actions of the Israeli fighter pilots, which resulted in the loss of life of 15 Russian servicemen, either lacked professionalism or were an act of criminal negligence, to say the least,” said Russian defense ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov.

“Therefore, we believe that the blame for the tragedy of the Russian Ilyushin aircraft lies entirely with the Israeli Air Force and those who made the decision to carry out such actions,” he said, according to a translation of the press conference provided by the Kremlin-backed Russia Today television channel.

The Israeli military would not immediately comment on the Russian allegations, but a spokesperson said the IDF was preparing a response statement.

In this file photo taken on Saturday, March 4, 2017, the Russian Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force with the registration number RF 93610, which was accidentally downed by Syrian forces responding to an Israeli air strike, flies near Kubinka airport, outside Moscow, Russia. (AP Photo/Marina Lystseva)

Moscow initially blamed Israel for the downing of its surveillance plane last Monday. But during a phone call Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Russian President Vladmir Putin appeared to walk back that assessment, saying a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances” was responsible for the loss of the plane and its crew — not Israel.

Konashenkov’s press conference appeared to indicate that Russia was going back to its initial view that Jerusalem was indeed accountable.

Explosions seen in the Syrian city of Latakia after an attack on a military facility nearby on September 17, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The Russian defense ministry spokesman said Israel’s actions violated a 2015 deconfliction agreement between the two countries, which was meant to prevent such clashes and inadvertent casualties. He added that the IAF rarely informs Moscow of its attack plans.

“During the timeframe covered by the agreements, the Israeli command center received 310 notifications about Russian missions near Israeli territory. During the same time, Israel issued only 25 notifications and did so only just before attacks,” Konashenkov said. Those figures could not be immediately confirmed by Israel.

“This is an extremely ungrateful response to all that has been done by the Russian federation for Israel and for the Israeli people, recently,” he added, apparently referring to Moscow’s role in enforcing a ceasefire agreement in southwest Syria that is meant to keep Iranian forces away from Israel’s border.

Israeli fighter jets conducted the airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia that the IDF said was going to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies. During a Syrian air defenses counterattack, the Russian spy plane was shot down by a S-200 anti-aircraft missile, and its 15 crew members were killed.

A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

Israel blamed the Syrian military’s “reckless” launching of its air defenses, saying it continued long after the Israeli fighter jets had left the area and did not differentiate between friend and foe.

The Russian government’s announcement came two days after an Israeli delegation returned from Moscow, having presented the IDF’s version of events to the Russian military’s top brass.

An Israeli military delegation meets with Russian officials in Moscow on September 20, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Upon the delegation’s return on Friday, a senior Israeli official said Moscow appeared to have accepted the IDF’s investigation.

“Our impression is that the discussions were professional and that the information was accepted,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, the Russian defense ministry’s announcement on Sunday indicated that Moscow was in fact siding with its close ally Syria, a decision that Israeli analysts say may significantly hamper the IDF’s ability to conduct operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Moscow said Israel “misled” the Russian military about the location of the attack and providing insufficient time to move the Il-20 spy plane to safety.

“[An Israeli officer] said that within the next few minutes Israel would attack some industrial facilities in northern Syria. In one minute’s time, at 21:40, four Israeli F-16 jets dropped GBU-39 guided bombs, targeting industrial facilities in Latakia,” Konashenkov said.

“Thus Israel did not inform Russian forces about its operation in advance. But rather, [the IDF] offered a warning simultaneously, with the beginning of the strike,” he said.

That statement directly contradicted the claim made by the senior IDF officer, who told reporters on Friday, “We definitely gave a warning time much longer than one minute; we acted in accordance with the standard operating procedures that are in place with the Russian military, this time as we have done before.”

Konashenkov also accused Israel of providing incorrect information about the location of the strike.

“The city of Latakia is in a western province of the country, not in the north of the Syrian Arab Republic. The misleading information provided by the Israeli officer about the aerial strike did not allow the Russian Il-20 aircraft to move in a timely manner to a safe area,” he said.

While the port city of Latakia is located on the country’s western coast, it is also close to Syria’s northern border with Turkey.

On Thursday, the Israeli delegation, led by Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, visited Moscow in order to brief Russian officials on Israel’s initial investigation of the incident.

During their meetings in Moscow, Norkin’s and his colleagues told their Russian counterparts that the Syrian military fired more than 20 anti-aircraft missiles in response to the Israeli attack — a comparatively large number for this type of scenario. In addition, the senior military officer said the majority of the surface-to-air missiles fired by the Syrians — including the missile that hit the Russian spy plane — were fired after the Israeli jets had left the area.

Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin, center-right, meets with Russian officials in Moscow on September 20, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The delegation also rejected the Russian military’s initial claim that the Israeli pilots had used the Russian Il-20 spy plane as a “shield” during their attack.

“We debunked that false story,” the officer said.

However, none of those arguments seemed to have swayed the Russian military from its initial position that Israel is to blame for the downing of the plane.

Konashenkov said the Israeli jets remained off the coast of Syria following the attack, with the Russian Il-20 spy plane stuck in the middle, presenting a far larger target for the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles to hit.

The Russian defense ministry prepared a 3D rendering of the incident, which purported to show the actions of the all the aircraft involved.

The incident threatens Israel’s coordination efforts with Russia in Syria. Still, the senior official on Friday said the hotline between the Israeli and Russian militaries has continued to operate as normal, though some “improvements” may be made in the future.

According to the officer, the deconfliction mechanism was used as recently as Friday afternoon. He refused to comment on the nature of the operation that required the coordination, saying only that it was not an airstrike.

“It is of paramount importance to us that we continue to use the deconfliction mechanism, which has proven over the past two-and-a-half to three years to be effective,” the officer said.

Israel routinely conducts operations against Iran-linked targets in Syria. Were Moscow to refuse to cooperate with Jerusalem, those efforts could become far more difficult and complicated for the IAF.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday during an interview on Israel Radio that despite Russia’s ire over the incident, Israel was continuing to operate in Syria in order to fight Iran’s activities in the country.

“We act with discretion and responsibility,” Liberman said. “Nothing has changed and nothing will change. This is our policy.”

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