Blaming Assad for downing Russian plane, Israel says it won’t stop Syria strikes
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IDF chief sends condolences to families of Russians killed

Blaming Assad for downing Russian plane, Israel says it won’t stop Syria strikes

Defense minister says he understands Moscow’s initial anger at Israel, but maintains that ‘irresponsible’ Syria is at fault

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

A Russian military Ilyushin IL-20 landing at Kubinka air base on June 3, 2011. (Artyom Anikeev/iStock/Getty Images)
A Russian military Ilyushin IL-20 landing at Kubinka air base on June 3, 2011. (Artyom Anikeev/iStock/Getty Images)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday blamed “irresponsible and unprofessional” Syrian air defense operators for downing a Russian surveillance plane during an Israeli airstrike on Monday night.

Liberman maintained, 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.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot at Glilot military base near Tel Aviv, March 28, 2018 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“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 Thursday.

On Monday night, Israeli F-16 fighter jets conducted an air raid on a Syrian weapons facility near the city of Latakia on the country’s western coast. According to the Israeli military, the weapons at the site were going to be given to Iranian-linked and Hezbollah forces — something Israel has vowed to prevent.

During the strike, Syrian air defenses fired at the attacking aircraft and incoming missiles. According to Israel, this attack continued after the Israeli fighter jets left the area. It was during this time that the Russian spy plane, with 15 people on board, was said to have been shot down.

Israel and Russia maintain close coordination about each other’s activities in and above Syria in order to avoid such incidents. The Israeli military maintains that it had warned Russia in advance, while Moscow said that it received notice “less than a minute” before the Israeli strike, preventing it from getting its troops out of harm’s way in time.

The Russian military and defense minister initially accused the Israeli pilots of using the IL-20 reconnaissance plane as a “cover” during their attack and said that Moscow reserved the right to respond to the Israeli action.

Following a series of discussions between senior Israeli and Russian officials, Russian President Vladmir Putin said he did not blame Israel for the downing of the spy plane and instead credited it to a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare to deliver joint statements after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, Monday, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)

In his Army Radio interview, Liberman said that Israel would fully cooperate with Russia in its investigation.

“We are open to the Russians and are prepared to present them with all the information. We have nothing to hide. We acted as we always act,” the defense minister said.

Earlier on Thursday morning, an Israeli army delegation led by Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin flew to Moscow to present the IDF’s findings on Monday’s incident.

The army said Norkin and his team would present Russian officials with “a full rundown of the event and all of its aspects, including the intelligence [that led to the strike] and the main findings of the IDF internal inquiry, as well as Iran’s ongoing efforts to provide strategic weaponry to Hezbollah and establish itself in Syria.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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