IAF chief heads to Moscow to present findings on downing of Russian plane

Amikam Norkin, joined by other senior officers, will debrief Kremlin officials on ‘all aspects’ of incident in which Syrian air defenses shot down aircraft during Israeli strike

Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin speaks at the Israel Aviation Conference at Airport City, May 2, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)
Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin speaks at the Israel Aviation Conference at Airport City, May 2, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

An Israeli army delegation led by Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin was to fly to Moscow Thursday morning to present the IDF’s findings on Monday’s incident in which a Russian plane was accidentally shot down by Syrian fire during an Israeli missile strike.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia and has insisted it warned Russia of the coming raid in accordance with deconfliction agreements.

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 the Iran’s ongoing efforts to provide strategic weaponry to Hezbollah and establish itself in Syria.”

Norkin will be joined by Brig. Gen. Erez Maisel, the head of the IDF’s Foreign Relations Division, and other senior officers from the Air Force and the Intelligence and Operations directorates.

The Kremlin has said Russian experts will carefully study the data that the air force chief will deliver.

On Monday Syria accidentally shot down the Russian plane when its air defenses swung into action against the Israeli strike. The plane was downed by Syria’s Russian-made S-200 air defense system and all 15 crew members were killed.

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

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.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had suggested sending the air force chief to the Russian capital in his conversation with Putin on the incident Tuesday, during which he “conveyed sorrow over the deaths of the Russian soldiers” but stressed that “responsibility for downing the plane falls on Syria,” according to a statement from his office.

Putin’s office said the Russian president has warned Netanyahu against carrying out such operations in the future and pledged to beef up security for Russian forces in Syria.

On Wednesday Syrian President Bashar Assad blamed Israel for the incident, telling Putin in a letter offering condolences that the plane was brought down due to “Israeli arrogance and depravity.”

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)

He added, “We are determined that such tragic events will sway neither you nor us from continuing the fight against terrorism,” according to the official Sana agency.

Syrian media and opposition sources reported Wednesday that several Syrian soldiers who were involved in the downing of the Russian plane were arrested and interrogated.

It was the worst “friendly fire” incident between Moscow and the Syrian regime since Russian forces intervened in the country in late 2015 to support Assad, whose grip on power had been weakened by rebels and jihadist fighters.

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks during an interview with the Greek Kathimerini newspaper, in Damascus, Syria, in this photo released May 10, 2018. (SANA via AP)

Israel has been increasing its strikes inside Syria, protesting Iran and Hezbollah’s growing influence there.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday that Israel must stop its “intolerable” attacks in Syria. He 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.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gestures during a rally to mark Jerusalem Day or Al-Quds Day, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, August 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said new security measures following the incident will include deploying automated protection systems at Russia’s air and naval bases in Syria.

Business daily Kommersant reported that Russia also may respond to the downing of its plane by becoming more reluctant to engage Iran and Hezbollah, to help assuage Israeli worries.

Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow struck a deal with Tehran to keep Iranian fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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