Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, said Wednesday that Israel must stop its “intolerable” attacks in Syria. His comments came after an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, during which a Russian spy plane was accidentally shot down by soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad.
Israel has been increasing its strikes inside Syria, protesting Iran and Hezbollah’s growing influence there.
But Nasrallah denied that the target of the Israeli strikes was weapons shipments bound for his group, and accused Israel of using Iran and Hezbollah as an “excuse” while really aiming to degrade Syria’s military capabilities.
“This is a lie. Sometimes they do hit places that are connected to weapons — that they know of — but many of the attacks are not related to that at all,” he said. “Israel is working on preventing Syria from possessing missile capabilities.”
In a televised address, Nasrallah also vowed that Hezbollah, which has been fighting alongside Assad’s forces in the civil war, would remain in Syria. Some 1,665 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We will remain there even after the Idlib accord,” Nasrallah said, referring to a Russia-Turkey deal to prevent a Syrian regime offensive on the country’s last rebel-held stronghold.
“We will stay until further notice,” he said, speaking on the eve of the Shiite commemoration of Ashura. “Our presence there is tied to necessity and to the consent of the Syrian leadership.”
Syria accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane on Monday, when its air defenses swung into action against the Israeli strike on Latakia. The Russian defense ministry initially blamed Israel, saying the IAF jets used the Russian plane as cover.
However, Russian President Vladimir Putin later told reporters that the downing of the plane by Syrian air defenses was a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
On Wednesday, the Russians approved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to fly air force commander Major General Amiram Norkin to Moscow to present the findings of Israel’s investigation into the incident.
Syrian media and opposition sources reported Wednesday that several Syrian soldiers who were involved in the downing of the Russian spy plane were arrested and interrogated.
The fighters from the air force base in Latakia were reportedly arrested by members of the Russian military police. A Syrian unit was also reported to have taken part in the arrest, according to Hadashot TV news.
The incident was the worst case of friendly fire between the two allies since Russia’s game-changing military intervention in September 2015.
The Russian plane was downed by a Russian-made S-200 air defense supplied to Syria.
The Israeli military on Tuesday acknowledged conducting the airstrike the night before and “expressed sorrow” for the deaths of the 15 Russian airmen.
In a statement, however, the IDF denied all responsibility for the downing of the Russian spy plane, saying that Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah were the ones at fault.
“Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” the IDF said, and noted that the Russian plane that was hit “was not within the area of the operation.”
The target of the Israeli strike was identified by Syria as a subsidiary of its defense ministry, known as the Organization for Technical Industries, which has suspected ties to the country’s chemical weapons and missile programs.
“These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it,” the army said.
Though Israeli officials have said, generally, that the military conducts operations inside Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, the IDF rarely acknowledges specific airstrikes, preferring instead to adopt a formal policy of neither confirming nor denying the attacks attributed to it.
The military said its initial investigation found that its strike was completed before the Russian plane entered the area of the operation and that the reconnaissance aircraft was shot down after the Israeli fighter jets had returned to Israeli airspace.
“Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident. Israel also holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organization accountable for this unfortunate incident,” the army said.
The Israeli and Russian militaries maintain what they call a “deconfliction mechanism,” which is meant to coordinate their activities in Syria in order to avoid incidents like this one. Until Monday night, these efforts had largely succeeded in preventing direct or indirect clashes since Russia became more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war three years ago.