Liberman: Strikes in Syria to continue despite downing of Russian plane

‘We do not intend to have a public argument with Russia,’ defense minister says, shortly before Moscow takes Israel to task over incident

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits at an army drill in northern Israel on August 7, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits at an army drill in northern Israel on August 7, 2018. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that Israel’s Syria policy remains unchanged, despite Moscow’s displeasure over the downing of a Russian spy plane during an Israeli air raid in that country last week, and implied that attacks against Iranian- and Hezbollah-affiliated targets would continue.

“We act with discretion and responsibility,” Liberman told Israel Radio in an interview. “Nothing has changed and nothing will change. This is our policy.”

Israeli fighter jets conducted the airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia. During the Syrian air defenses counterattack, the Russian spy plane with 15 crew members on board was shot down.

“We do not intend to have a public argument with Russia via the media,” Liberman added. “We acted as we have always acted, according to the same coordination system [with Russia], and we will continue to act this way in the future. Responsibility for this tragic incident lies with Syria, with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s army… These are the facts.”

A photo taken on July 23, 2006 shows an Russian IL-20M (Ilyushin 20m) plane landing at an unknown location. ( AFP PHOTO / Nikita SHCHYUKIN)

The defense minister added that “the situation is under control. We are in continuous dialog” with the Russians.

He also said that the incident had been blown out of proportion, both by the media and by the official rhetoric, which did not reflect the discussions and meetings held in recent days.

“We have made it clear that we will not allow Syrian territory to become a front for Iran against the State of Israel,” he said. “We will continue to act to prevent this and we have all the means and all the possibilities.”

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. Its admission of last week’s attack was therefore a striking exception.

Liberman made his comments shortly before the release of a Russian report into the incident, in which Moscow blamed Israel for the downing of the jet and accused the IDF of deceiving it about the intended location of the airstrike.

A Russian military official gives a briefing on the downing of an IL-20 military plane near Syria on September 23, 2018. (screen capture: Russia Today)

In a press briefing, the Russian defense ministry rejected the findings of the IDF about the incident and insisted that the Israeli pilots who conducted the raid on a Syrian military facility in Latakia had used the Russian reconnaissance aircraft as cover during their assault — something Israel has repeatedly denied.

Israel has blamed the Syrian military’s “reckless” launching of its air defenses, which the IDF said continued long after the Israeli F-16 fighter jets returned to Israeli airspace.

However, the Russian defense ministry’s announcement on Sunday indicated that Moscow was siding with its close ally Syria, a move that Israeli analysts say may significantly limit the IDF’s ability to conduct operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Moscow said Israel had “misled” the Russian military about the location of the attack, saying it was going to take place in northern Syria, while Latakia was in fact situated on the western coast. (The port city is located in the country’s northwest.)

Despite the IDF’s insistence on its innocence, the incident initially threatened Israel’s coordination efforts with Russia — known as the deconfliction mechanism — which is meant to prevent such clashes and inadvertent casualties.

A before and after photo of an ammunition warehouse which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on a Syrian base in Latakia, September 18, 2018 (ImageSat International (ISI/Ynet)

However, a senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the hotline between the Israeli and Russian militaries has continued to operate as normal, though some “improvements” may be made in the future.

For now, there are “no changes to the deconfliction mechanism,” the officer said, adding “but both sides will use this opportunity to make adjustments.”

According to the officer, the deconfliction mechanism was used as recently as Friday afternoon. He refused to comment on the nature of the operation that required the coordination, saying only that it was not an airstrike.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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