Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian plane, which was accidentally hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during an Israeli missile strike.
“This unfortunate incident was the result of Israeli arrogance and depravity,” the Syrian leader said, offering his condolences in a letter to his Russian counterpart for the death of 15 Russian crew members killed in the incident over Syria on Monday.
“We are determined that such tragic events will sway neither you nor us from continuing the fight against terrorism,” he continued in the letter, published by the official Sana agency.
The Russian plane was downed by Syria’s Russian-made S-200 air defense system and all aboard were killed.
The Russian military initially accused Israeli pilots of using the Russian plane as a cover, “exposing it to fire from Syrian air defenses.” But Syrian media and opposition sources reported Wednesday that several Syrian soldiers who were involved in the downing of the Russian plane were arrested and interrogated.
It was the worst “friendly fire” incident between Moscow and the Syrian regime since Russian forces intervened in the country in late 2015 to support Assad, whose grip on power had been weakened by rebels and jihadist fighters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the incident as the result of “tragic accidental circumstances,” absolving Israel from direct blame but warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against such an incident recurring and pledging to beef up security for Russian forces in Syria.
Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed his condolences to Putin in a phone call, offering to assist Moscow in the investigation.
However, he insisted the Russian plane had been felled by “extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft (fire).”
The Israeli military said its fighter jets were targeting a Syrian military facility involved in providing weapons for Iran’s proxy Hezbollah militia and insisted it warned Russia of the coming raid in accordance with de-confliction agreements.
Israel has been increasing its strikes inside Syria, protesting Iran and Hezbollah’s growing influence there.
Putin accepted Israel’s offer to share detailed information on the airstrike, the Kremlin said Wednesday.
Israel’s air force chief is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on Thursday to provide details. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russian experts will carefully study the data that the air force chief will deliver.
While Putin took a cautious stance on the incident, he warned that Russia will respond by “taking additional steps to protect our servicemen and assets in Syria.”
Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Wednesday that those will include deploying automated protection systems at Russia’s air and naval bases in Syria.
Business daily Kommersant reported that Russia also may respond to the downing of its plane by becoming more reluctant to engage Iran and Hezbollah, to help assuage Israeli worries.
Moscow has played a delicate diplomatic game of maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran. In July, Moscow struck a deal with Tehran to keep its fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights to accommodate Israeli security concerns.