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Russian, Israeli jets said to cross paths over Syria

Accounts of incident differ, with some claiming Russian fighters were scrambled to intercept Israelis. However, no confrontation took place

Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet before a departure for a mission at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria, on December 16, 2015. (AFP/Paul Gypteau)
Russian servicemen prepare a Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jet before a departure for a mission at the Russian Hmeimim military base in Latakia province, Syria, on December 16, 2015. (AFP/Paul Gypteau)

An irregular aerial incident occurred in recent days when Israeli fighter jets encountered Russian warplanes along the Syrian frontier, Hebrew media reported.

Information regarding the alleged incident was limited, and reports Thursday were conflicting.

According to one account on the Ynet news website, a single Russian jet was scrambled to meet an Israeli military aircraft operating along the northern border. The report stated that it was unclear why the Russian fighter was launched. It noted that the two planes did not make contact and that the Israeli fighter continued on its course unobstructed.

A second report on Channel 2 news claimed that the incident occurred between Russian and Israeli squadrons, as Israeli jets flew along the Syrian coastline. The two fighter groups reportedly approached each other, and very nearly confronted each other. However, contacts between Israeli and Russian officials through a coordination body set up last year prevented a more serious incident.

Finally, Channel 10 military reporter Alon Ben-David appeared to combine the two accounts, tweeting Thursday that a single Russian jet was scrambled to meet an Israeli squadron over the Syrian coast. He too noted that the incident never became a full-blown confrontation, and that none of the planes had locked onto each other throughout the event.

Whatever the details of the occurrence, it appeared to have taken place several days before Thursday’s meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which focused in part on coordination between the two militaries along the Syrian border, and which the Israeli premier called “very successful.”

Netanyahu said the two countries reached understandings over issues that had previously not been sufficiently clarified.

“I set the goal of the meeting as strengthening coordination between Russia and Israel to prevent mishaps,” Netanyahu said. “I think we clarified some matters, and that is very important.”

The issues of the Syrian civil war and the ownership of the Golan had been expected to top the agenda at the meeting. Russia has been carrying out air raids in Syria in support of embattled President Bashar Assad since September of last year. And although Moscow recently announced it would withdraw many of its troops from the war-torn country, Russian planes still regularly fly sorties there.

In November Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said a Russian jet had breached Israeli airspace, and that the matter was “immediately fixed through communications channels” between the two countries. And late last month King Abdullah of Jordan told American lawmakers that Israeli and Jordanian jets together confronted Russian warplanes in January over southern Syria and warned them away from crossing their shared border.

Netanyahu said Thursday that Israeli and Russian military officials had discussed coordination between their armies.

“I think [such coordination] is crucial because we have to keep the freedom of movement for the army and the air force in the places that are important to us in terms of our security, and I think that this essential,” he said.

Israeli airstrikes in Syria have also been the topic of previous high-level meetings between Moscow and Jerusalem. A number of airstrikes in Syria have been attributed to Israeli efforts to prevent advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah.

The prime minister announced he will return to Russia on June 7.

During the meeting, Netanyahu informed Putin of his “red lines” regarding the security of Israel’s northern borders, and stressed that the Jewish state was determined to maintain its control of the Golan Heights.

“I have come to Russia to step up coordination on security matters, to prevent mistakes, misunderstandings,” Netanyahu said as the two leaders met. “We are not going back to the days when rockets were fired at our communities and our children from the top of the Golan… and so, with an agreement or without, the Golan Heights will remain part of [Israel’s] sovereign territory.”

The prime minister stressed that Israel would do “everything” in its power to block Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weapons, and was working to assure that no new “terror front” appeared on the Golan Heights.

Israel is interested in making sure that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed terror groups are not able to use a power vacuum on the Syrian side of the Golan to set up a base near the border for attacks against Israel.

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