Senior IDF officers to visit Moscow amid ongoing spat over downed Russian plane
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Assad: Russia thinks Israel tried to get aircraft shot down

Senior IDF officers to visit Moscow amid ongoing spat over downed Russian plane

Army says delegation will brief Russian counterparts on new effort to find Hezbollah tunnels in Lebanon, discuss ‘other operational subjects’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, commander of the IDF's Technology and Logistics Directorate, who was named as the army's new head of the Operations Directorate, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)
Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, commander of the IDF's Technology and Logistics Directorate, who was named as the army's new head of the Operations Directorate, in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

A senior Israeli military delegation will travel to Moscow this week amid an ongoing rift between the two countries over the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike over Syrian airspace in September, which Russia blames on Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday that the decision to send the officers, including operations chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, was made following a phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladmir Putin on Saturday.

During the call, Putin told Netanyahu that Israel and Russia must improve their military cooperation in Syria.

According to the military, the officers will discuss the IDF’s newly launched operation to find and destroy Hezbollah cross-border attack tunnels, which Israel says the Iran-backed terror group has dug into Israeli territory from southern Lebanon.

The army said the senior officers would also discuss “other operational issues.”

Israeli troops search for a Hezbollah border-crossing attack tunnel from southern Lebanon, along the northern border, on December 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army’s announcement came hours after Syrian dictator Bashar Assad said he and Moscow were both convinced that Israel had acted deliberately during the September 17 incident, during which the Russian spy aircraft was shot down by Syrian forces, who were responding to an Israeli strike.

Israel has repeatedly rejected Russia’s claims that Israeli fighter pilots took cover behind the Russian plane, putting it in the path of an incoming Syrian S-200 anti-aircraft missile. All 15 Russian crew members on board the plane were killed in the incident.

In an interview with an Omani newspaper, a Gulf state that has seen a recent warming of ties with Israel, Assad said that Damascus and Moscow had reached a consensus that the downing of the place was not an accident.

“Our leadership is united with the Russians, and it is clear that the incident is deliberate. The Russian media is transparent and has managed to expose the lies of some of the claims,” he said.

A Russian military official gives a briefing on the downing of an IL-20 military plane near Syria on September 18, 2018. (screen capture: Sputnik)

Although Putin initially told reporters that the incident was due to a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” the Russian defense ministry later declared that Israel was responsible, saying the Israeli Air Force jets used the Russian plane as cover.

Israel rejected the accusation.

Since the downing of the spy plane, ties between the two countries have been strained — a marked change from the previously more cordial relationship between Moscow and Jerusalem, which regularly praised their open dialogue, though they disagree on key issues, like Iran.

Things deteriorated after Russia delivered the S-300 missile defense system to Syria, something that Israel has repeatedly asked Russia not to do. Moscow said the supply of the advanced anti-aircraft system was necessary in order to prevent further threats to Russian troops and to cool off “hot heads.”

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. It has launched numerous attacks on targets it says are a threat to its security.

Russia, which is a main backer of Assad, has maintained a deconfliction hotline with Israel, allowing the Jewish state to freely carry out the attacks as long as it is informed beforehand.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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