Air force chief briefs Moscow on downing of spy plane, Iranian activities

Air force chief briefs Moscow on downing of spy plane, Iranian activities

Israeli delegation says meetings to resolve spat over a friendly fire incident in Syria held in ‘good spirit,’ with emphasis on maintaining deconfliction mechanism

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

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

An Israeli military delegation held a number of high-level meetings with Russian officials in Moscow on Thursday in an effort to defuse tensions over the downing of a Russian plane off the coast of Syria during an Israeli airstrike earlier in the week.

The Israeli officials, led by air force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, showed their Russian counterparts the Israel Defense Forces’ initial investigation of the incident, which the army said showed Syria, not Israel, to be responsible for the downing of the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft and its 15 crew members.

In addition, the Israeli delegation shared intelligence regarding Iranian efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and to transfer advanced weaponry to terrorist groups in the region, the army said.

“The meetings were held in a good spirit. There was professional, open, and transparent dialogue on various issues, and an emphasis was put on the importance of the two nations’ interests and the continuation of the deconfliction mechanism,” the IDF said, referring to a hotline between the two countries.

Norkin’s delegation was expected to remain in Moscow, continuing to meet with Russian officials, until Friday morning.

A Kremlin spokesman denied an Israeli report that Russian President Vladimir Putin had sought a meeting with Norkin during his visit, according to state media, and made plain that Putin and Norkin would not meet.

There was no other comment from Moscow on the meetings, but earlier the Russian foreign ministry demanded “further inquiries and explanations from Israel” about the downing of the plane, according to the Russian Interfax agency.

It also said “new information” on the incident would “emerge soon,” without elaborating.

The incident began Monday night, when the Israeli Air Force conducted an airstrike against a Syrian weapons facility near the city of Latakia, which Israel said was being used to store and transfer advanced munitions for Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.

The remains of a Syrian ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a base in Latakia, September 18, 2018. (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

The Israeli raid triggered a response from the Syrian military’s air defenses, which failed to hit the IAF jets, but shot down the Russian surveillance plane.

The downing of the plane sparked a flurry of condemnation from Moscow, which accused Israel of using its plane for cover during the attack and failing to notify the Russian military ahead of time.

Israel went on a full diplomatic push to resolve the issue.

In a highly irregular move, the IDF acknowledged conducting the Syria strike and released some of the findings of its initial investigation, which found that the Syrian air defense units fired “indiscriminately” and “did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

Senior Israeli ministers also held phone calls with their Russian counterparts, and Norkin’s delegation was dispatched to Moscow to present Israel’s version of events in person.

Russian President Vladmir Putin said he did not directly blame Israel for the downing of the spy plane and instead credited it to a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

However, he warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tuesday phone conversion that Israel should “not to allow such situations in the future,” and other parts of the Russian government have maintained a harsh line with Israel over the incident.

“Moscow views as irresponsible and unfriendly actions of Israeli Air Force, which exposed Russian Il-20 aircraft to danger and lead to death of 15 servicemen,” the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv wrote in a scathing statement on its Twitter account.

The Russian Foreign Ministry Thursday urged “further inquiries and explanations from Israel,” according to the Russian Interfax agency.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman earlier on Thursday said, during an interview on Army Radio, that despite Russia’s ire over the incident, Israel would continue to operate in Syria in order to fight Iran’s activities in the country.

“We will do everything, everything that is required, in order to defend the security of Israeli citizens. On this issue we have no other alternative,” Liberman said.

The defense minister denied that Israel was responsible for the downing of the plane, but said he understood Russia’s initial anger at the Jewish state over the affair.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, in Moscow, Russia on May 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“You don’t judge someone who’s in mourning, and we have expressed our condolences. I spoke with the Russian defense minister; naturally I can understand their mood at that time,” Liberman said.

“I accept the Russian president’s description that this was a tragic accident, but the person who is responsible for this tragic accident is [Syrian dictator Bashar] Assad’s army,” the defense minister said.

“There is a military there, air defenses, irresponsible and unprofessional people who appear to have acted after the [Israeli] air force planes were already in the airspace of the State of Israel. They only opened fire out of a sense of obligation,” Liberman said.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot joined the defense minister in expressing condolences over the deaths of the 15 crew members aboard the Russian plane.

“This week as well the IDF operated in the north in order to prevent our enemy from attaining advanced capabilities that threatened the State of Israel. Unfortunately, Syrian forces hit a Russian aircraft, and we join in the sadness of the families and the Russian army,” Eisenkot said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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