According to the Israel Defense Forces, on September 17th, the Israeli Air Force targeted a facility of the Syrian Armed Forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Anti-aircraft fire from Syrian SAM5 batteries in response to the Israeli strikes resulted in the accidental downing of a Russian Ilyushin-20 aircraft, killing all 15 Russian service members aboard. The incident has led to what has arguably been the biggest strain in Israeli-Russian relations since Russia began military operations in Syria three years ago, despite the fact that it had been Syrian anti-aircraft fire that had downed the Russian Ilyushin. Russian defense officials, such as Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and spokesperson of the Russian Defense Ministry Igor Konashenkov were quick to place blame on Israel.
“The Israeli jets used the Russian plane as a cover, thus exposing it to Syrian air defense fire. As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of an F-16, was shot down by a missile launched with the S-200 system,” Konashenkov told Russian news outlet TASS. “We regard these provocative actions by Israel as hostile. As a result of irresponsible actions by the Israeli military, 15 Russian military servicemen were killed. This by no means agrees with the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to a proportionate response,” Konashenkov added.
According to the Defense Ministry in Moscow, the Russian Ilyushin-20 was returning to the Russian Hmeymim airbase in Lataika province when at approximately 11:00 p.m. Moscow time, it disappeared from radar screens. The Russians claim that the plane was over the Mediterranean Sea about 35 kilometers (20 miles) from the Syrian coastline, and that the trace of the Ilyushin-20 on flight control radars disappeared during an attack by four Israeli F-16 jets on Syrian facilities in Latakia province. Syrian state media also presented a similar timeline of events, however, opposition sources reported that on Wednesday, several Syrian soldiers who were involved in the downing of the Russian Ilyushin-20 were arrested and interrogated by members of the Russian military police. A Syrian unit was also reported to have taken part in the arrest.
Israel was quick to respond to Russian claims that it was responsible for the incident, placing blame on the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad, as well as on Iran and its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. In a phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu emphasized this point, while also expressing regret and condolences for lost lives.
The Israel Defense Forces admitted to targeting a Syrian Armed Forces facility in Latakia, where systems to manufacture lethal weapons were about to be transferred to Hezbollah on Iran’s behalf. Israeli officials stressed that these weapons posed an “intolerable threat.” Israel also launched its own investigation into the incident, one that contradicts the Russian account of events.
According to Israeli officials, at the time of the strike, the Russian plane was not in the area, and by the time that the Syrian SAM missiles were launched, Israel’s fighters were already back in Israeli airspace. The Israeli investigation claimed that Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries fired indiscriminately and that its military did not check whether or not Russian planes were in the air, concluding that, “extensive and inaccurate Syrian antiaircraft fire,” took down the Russian plane.
Despite the rise in tensions, both Russia and Israel have taken steps that reflect their desire to de-escalate the situation. While officials in Moscow and in Russian Defense circles were quick to place unequivocal blame on Israel, Russian President Vladimir Putin took a softer tone, stating: “Here it’s more like a chain of tragic accidental circumstances, because Israel didn’t shoot our plane down. But there’s no doubt, no doubt at all, that we will have to take a serious look at what in fact happened, and our view of this tragedy is set out in the statement issued by the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, which has been fully agreed with me.” Vladimir Putin promised to further investigate the incident and to take stronger security measures to protect Russian servicemen in Syria.
In his phone call with Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the importance of continued coordination between Israel and Russia, and offered to send Israel’s Air Force commander to Moscow to debrief the Russian government about the Israeli operation in Syria. “Israel has a strong interest in maintaining the deconfliction line and will want to work with Russia to improve it,” according to Yaakov Amidror.
Comments from the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not mention Israel, but noted, “Yesterday’s unfortunate incident reminds us of the need to find permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations,” and, “Underlines the urgent need to resolve the Syrian conflict and to end Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria, which are a threat to the region.” President Trump remarked that the incident was, “A very sad thing, but that’s what happens.”
Remarks from Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Hezbollah, claimed that Israel’s real purpose for striking Syria was not to stop the shipments of weapons to Hezbollah, but to degrade Syrian weapons capabilities (with notable regards to missiles). Nasrallah added that, “The Israeli aggression in Syria is intolerable and must be stopped immediately.” Nasrallah also made sure to target the United States in his remarks, stating, “The real enemy of the Middle East is the Americans and their policies. Even Israel is only an actor in the US play.” Most notably, and perhaps most unsurprisingly, Nasrallah emphasized that Hezbollah fighters would not be leaving Syria anytime in the near future.
On September 20, 2018, it was released that Iranian ambassador to the United Nations Gholamali Khoshroo asked in letters to the secretary-general and Security Council for condemnation of Israeli threats against Tehran and to bring Israel’s nuclear program under its supervision. The letter also requested that the United Nation to force Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and bring its nuclear program under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN atomic watchdog.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem threatened at the UN General Assembly on October 29th to push Israel out of the “occupied Golan Heights,” and accused Israel of supporting terrorist groups operating in Southern Syria. He then affirmed that Syria is determined to liberate the Golan Heights, and appealed for the UN to enforce resolutions that would push Israel back to the pre-1967 border with Syria. Mr. Muallem also called for the immediate removal of US, French, and Turkish forces from Syria.
In the time since the downing of the Russian Illyushin-20, Israel and Russia have maintained a constant dialogue with regards to the incident, and a military delegation headed by Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin was sent to Moscow in an attempt to deescalate the situation. The delegation presented its initial findings of their investigation, which found that Syria, not Israel, was to blame for the downing of the Il-20. The delegation also presented intelligence regarding Iranian efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and to facilitate arms transfers to terror proxies in the region. In the end, the Russians rejected the findings of the investigation conducted by the Israeli Air Force, maintaining their claims that Israeli warnings of an impending airstrike came with too short of a notice (Israel claims 12 minutes in advance, Russia claims less than one minute in advance), and that Israeli fighters used the Russian plane as cover, a claim that Israeli officials have ardently denied. Nevertheless, Moscow still places sole blame on Israel. In addition to this, Moscow has demanded further inquiries and explanations from Israel.
Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov issued a scathing statement directed towards the Israeli military, claiming that, “objective data says that the actions of Israeli pilots, which led to the death of 15 Russian military personnel, point to either lack of professionalism or criminal negligence. This is why we believe that the Russian Il-20 aircraft tragedy is solely the fault of the Israeli Air Force and those who made decisions concerning such actions.” Konashenkov followed, “This is an extremely ungrateful response to all that Russia has done for Israel and the Israeli people recently. The Israeli military command either does not value the current level of relations with Russia or does not control certain military units,” claiming that the IAF’s actions towards the Russian aircraft went, “beyond civilized relations.”
In the wake of heightened tensions, Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman pledged that Israel would continue to operate in Syria to fight Iran. “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,” Lieberman remarked. With regards to initial Russian outrage over the event, Lieberman said he understood the anger surrounding the incident, but maintained that the Syrian regime under Bashar Al-Assad, not Israel, was responsible.
While Israel vows to continue strikes against Iran in Syria, the situation has become more complicated with the recent decision by the Russians to supply Syria with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the anti-aircraft system “will be devoted to ensure 100 percent security and safety of our men in Syria.” Russian Minister of Defense remarked, “We are confident that these measures will cool hotheads and prevent them from taking thoughtless steps that might put our servicemen in harms way.” While Moscow claims that the system will be under the control of Syrian forces, most agree that it will be the Russians who will have their fingers on the button. Moscow is hoping that the move will compel Israel and other coalitions operating in Syria, such as those lead by the U.S. and Turkey, to consult even more closely with Russia when pursuing their own military objectives, such as to avoid any future incidents. Alexander Sherin, deputy chair of the Russian State Duma’s defense committee stated, “We cannot allow Syrian airspace to be turned into a public thoroughfare.”
The move has faced sharp criticism in Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu calling it “irresponsible,” and another Israeli official remarking that, “The S-300 is a complex challenge for the State of Israel.” However, the Israeli official added that while Moscow, “made a move, the playing field is very large.” Statements from Israeli officials indicate that Israel remains committed to self-defense and confident in its support from the United States. Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman pledged, “One thing needs to be clear: If someone shoots at our planes, we will destroy them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an S-300 or an S-700.” Israel has reportedly been preparing for the S-300’s deployment for over a decade, and Israel’s new F-35 stealth fighters are capable of evading the system. Nevertheless, the S-300 does pose new challenges to Israeli operations in Syria, and the risk of escalation persists in Israeli-Russian relations. While Netanyahu and Putin have enjoyed positive relations and even what some would call, “friendship,” this does not outweigh rivaling geopolitical interests.
While Russia has attempted to portray the incident as the result of a lack of self-control on the part of the Israeli’s, ultimately, the events of September 17th highlight Russia’s inability to control or otherwise restrain its own proxies. Russia’s embarrassment of this fact is displayed by its frantic attempts to blame Israel for something that it knows their own ally (Syria) is responsible for. Russia and Israel both have an understanding in trying to maintain the deconfliction line. Russia, it should be noted, has acknowledged Israel’s concerns that Iranian forces would look to use Syria as a staging ground for military operations against Israel, as well as to facilitate the transfer of arms to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has made it abundantly clear that it will tolerate neither.
Vladimir Putin knows that unless he is able or willing to take steps to limit these actions taken by Iran and its proxies, that future incidents like this are not only possible, but also likely. Russia’s only other option is a possible military confrontation with Israel, but as Zvi Magen from the Institute of National Security Studies notes, “Russia is not in a position to be in a conflict with Israel on any level, in any space.” While Russia’s deployment of S-300 systems to Syria is certainly an escalation, it is a calculated one on the part of Vladimir Putin. The deployment of S-300 systems will increase the threat to Israeli planes, but it likely will not drastically change the calculations of Israeli Defense Officials. Israel will continue to strike against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. Should the S-300 systems manage to pose a significant enough threat to Israeli fighters, Israel will certainly find a way to neutralize them too. Putin is certainly aware of this. If Russia truly wanted to pose a truly significant threat to Israeli pilots, they could have deployed S-400 systems to Syria, but that is not Russia’s intention. Chiefly, the deployment of S-300 systems to Syria is a message: The Russians want to prevent any more friendly-fire incidents (to avoid future embarrassment and escalation), while also playing into Putin’s “strongman” narrative. Putin does not want to appear weak, but knows there is only so much that can be done short of an actual military confrontation.
These events highlight another issue from the perspective of the United States and Israel. Both find themselves in similar circumstances. Despite crippling economic sanctions, the Iranian regime is not curtailing its actions or changing its intentions. In the face of renewed sanctions and the United States withdraw from the JCPOA, Iran continues its destabilizing activity in the Middle East, posing a direct threat to United States interests and Israeli security. It is also clear that while Iran is suffering economically, the regime is no closer to collapse.
Despite Israel having conducted approximately 200 strikes in Syria since 2017, it is clear that Israeli strikes against Iranian positions in Syria alone is not enough to dislodge Iran from Syria, nor is it enough to deter attempts of arms transfers between Iran and Hezbollah. In light of this realization, and the risks entailed in another downing of a Russian plan, the United States and Israel may need to reconsider their response to Iranian aggression. Where diplomatic measures and economic sanctions have failed, the US and Israel must keep open other options against Iran.
It is important to note that the use of new options against Iran will necessarily be viewed as an escalating action. This might lead to an Iranian retaliation. That is why any such action must be strongly coordinated between the United States and Israel. Both must be prepared for any response.
Professor Zaki Shalom is a member of the research staff at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Ashkelon Academic College. He has published extensively on various facets of Israel’s defense policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the role of the superpowers in the Middle East, and Israel’s struggle against Islamic terror. His work has also focused on the study of Israel’s nuclear option, both in historical and contemporary perspectives
Jacob Collier is a research intern at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He is a recent graduate from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where he earned a BA in Political Science and Global Security Studies.