Israel: Putin angry at Syria over downing of reconnaissance plane

Israel: Putin angry at Syria over downing of reconnaissance plane

Russian president refuses to speak to Assad, is unhappy at Iranian entrenchment in Syria, says Intelligence Minister Israel Katz

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) attends the inauguration ceremony for Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyaninin on September 18, 2018. (AFP/Sputnik/Alexey Filippov)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) attends the inauguration ceremony for Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyaninin on September 18, 2018. (AFP/Sputnik/Alexey Filippov)

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz says Russian President Vladimir Putin is refusing to answer telephone calls from Syrian President Bashar Assad after Syrian air defense forces downed a Russian plane off the coast of Syria during an Israeli airstrike earlier in the week.

Katz, who also serves as transportation minister and is a member of the security cabinet, told Army Radio Thursday that Assad had tried several times to phone Putin, but the Russian leader would not take his calls.

“The Russian president did not answer Assad’s phone calls. He is certainly fuming at what they did, and already said that Israel is not responsible for what happened,” Katz said. “Assad tried to reach him and Putin didn’t answer. So he sent him a telegram.”

Katz said that Assad has blamed Israel’s “bravado” and “lack of restraint” for Syria shooting down the Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft and its 15 crew members.

“Russia is extremely angry at Assad and Iran which sends weapons to Hezbollah in Syria,” Katz added. “There is a reason they are concerned about the Russian reaction.”

Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz speaks during the inauguration ceremony for the new train station in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, on September 17, 2018. (Flash90)

Russia “is not happy that Iran is firmly ensconced in Syria,” he said.

Katz also said that Israel was not going to change its policy following the incident but was working with Russia to calm the crisis.

“We are looking after Israel’s security interests,” he stressed. “The Iranian front in Syria is a danger to the Golan Heights and to the entire state of Israel. The Russians understand that our policy is valid.”

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 to 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, with the deaths of its 15 crew.

The downing of the plane sparked a flurry of condemnation from Moscow, which initially accused Israel of using its plane for cover during the attack and failing to notify the Russian military ahead of time. Since then, the Russian response has been a mix of strong criticism of Israel and somewhat milder comments from Putin, who spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday afternoon.

Israeli officials, fearful of losing the close defense cooperation with the Russians that have allowed the IDF to operate over Syria against Iranian and Iran-linked forces, launched a full diplomatic push.

In a highly unusual move, the IDF acknowledged the 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.”

Immediately following the incident, Israel sent top officials, including the head of its air force, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, to Moscow to share with their Russian counterparts the IDF’s initial findings, which the army said showed Syria, not Israel, was responsible for the downing of the plane.

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

The Israeli delegation also 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 positive 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 a deconflict mechanism,” the IDF said, referring to a hotline between the two countries meant to prevent friendly fire incidents over Syria.

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

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.

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.

Putin said Tuesday he did not directly blame Israel for the downing of the spy plane and instead lamented a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

However, he warned Netanyahu in their Tuesday phone conversation 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 on Thursday.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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