Russia: Israel endangered our troops by not giving notice before Syria strikes

Moscow’s foreign minister accuses IDF of placing Russian personnel in danger ‘on several occasions’; says Russia responded in ‘contained but firm manner’ to downing of spy plane

This Thursday, December 29, 2016 photo shows an Israeli Air Force F-15 plane in flight during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim air force base near the city of Beersheba, Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
This Thursday, December 29, 2016 photo shows an Israeli Air Force F-15 plane in flight during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim air force base near the city of Beersheba, Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Russia’s top diplomat on Monday accused Israel of breaching its commitment to inform Moscow before it carries out airstrikes in Syria, placing its military personnel in danger “on several occasions” and forcing Russia to respond in a “firm but contained manner.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s criticism came after Israel-Russia ties soured, following the September 17 downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian forces during an Israeli air raid.

Moscow’s defense ministry had blamed Israel for the deaths of its 15 servicemen on the plane, arguing that Israeli jets were hiding behind the Russian aircraft. Israel denies that claim.

Israel and Russia have coordinated their military efforts in Syria in recent years, in order to avoid friction and accidental conflict. Israeli officials do not generally discuss the full extent of that coordination, but they stress that the Israeli military does not seek Russian permission before carrying out operations.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gestures as he attends a meeting with Secretary General of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Thomas Greminger, in Moscow, on November 2, 2018. (Yuri KADOBNOV / AFP)

Jerusalem has touted the cooperation as a sign of strong ties with Moscow, even as Russia fumed over the downed spy plane incident.

Lavrov said Israel had failed to keep to the agreement.

“Unfortunately, the Israeli side did not always strictly comply with its obligations , especially as regards the obligation to notify the Russian military about combat operations in Syrian territory,” he told told the Spanish-language El Pais in an interview published Monday.

An explosion reportedly caused by an Israeli strike is seen at the Mazzeh military base near Damascus, Syria, on September 2, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Russia, like both Iran and its terror proxy Hezbollah, are fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war. The Israeli Air Force has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria in recent years against targets linked to Iran and Hezbollah, who Israel says are working to establish a military presence there that could threaten the Jewish state.

“On several occasions this endangered the lives of our military in Syria, for example, in the Israeli aerial bombardment in the region of Palmyra in March 2017,” added Lavrov.

In that strike, the target was the Tiyas air base — also known as the T-4 air base — outside Palmyra, in central Syria. Israel had previously carried out at least one explicitly acknowledged attack on the base, which it said was home to an Iranian drone program. Israel’s envoy to Moscow was summoned by the Russian foreign ministry, following the March 2017 raid, as the Kremlin angrily protested that it had not been informed in advance of the strike.

At the time, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that Israel had not spoken to Moscow ahead of the airstrike even though Russian military advisers could have been present at the base, which he described as “a cause for concern for us.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they prepare to deliver joint statements after a meeting and a lunch in the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Jim Hollander, Pool)

Despite Moscow being allied with Assad, Israel has looked to the Kremlin for help in pushing out Iran and Hezbollah.

However, Lavrov appeared to suggest that no amount of Israeli air raids would rid the Jewish state of the security threat posed by Hezbollah and Iranian troops and that Russia had already made that clear.

“We warned in all ways and at the highest level [to the Israelis] that such an attitude could lead to tragic consequences. At the same time, we emphasize that acts of force contribute to increasing regional tension and cannot solve the security problems that concern Israelis,” said Lavrov.

“However, [the Israelis] continued to bomb targets in Syrian territory and that was what led to the tragic demolition of the Russian reconnaissance aircraft Il-20 with 15 officers on board. After the incident of September 17, we could not leave things as they were. Russia responded in a contained but firm manner,” he said.

A computer simulation released by the Russian Defense Ministry September 23, 2018, purports to show Israeli jets near a Russian reconnaissance plane, in red, off Syria’s coast before it was accidentally shot down by Syria forces responding to the Israeli air strike. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Israel has insisted that its coordination with Russia has continued unchanged since the September clash. “The army’s coordination with the Russian army continues exactly as it did before the incident,” an Israeli official said last week in a briefing, speaking on condition of anonymity.

However, one-time regular reports of Israeli bombing raids in Syria have completely stopped and Russia has begun the process of installing more advanced S-300 air defense systems in Syria.

In late October, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported that Russia was seeking to reset the terms of Israeli military operations in Syria and overhaul the existing Jerusalem-Moscow coordination system.

Russia insists that it receive further advance warning of Israeli strikes, the TV network said, though the report did not say how much. Israel usually informs Russia minutes before an airstrike.

Such a demand would likely limit Israel’s freedom to maneuver in Syria, with the report noting it could endanger Israeli aircraft and allow Iranian operatives more time to hide materiel being targeted.A senior diplomatic source quoted in the report said the demand was unacceptable operationally and that Israel must not acquiesce to it.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman rejected the reported demands.

“We will not accept any restrictions on our freedom of operation, and when it comes to national security, we will take action,” Liberman told Army Radio last month. He indicated that Israel has carried out more airstrikes in Syria than have been attributed to it by foreign media.

“Just because the media did not report on Syria strikes does not mean there were none,” Liberman said. “I don’t think it’s our duty to report what the army must do. An army needs to act.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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