A Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down over Syria overnight, and Moscow is blaming the downing on Israel.
According to published reports, the downed aircraft — an Il-20 — had 15 Russian air force personnel aboard. All 15 were killed in the incident, the Russian Ministry of Defense has said.
The Russian MoD said the plane was shot down by Syrian government forces using an aged S-200 air defense system. The Kremlin said that the Il-20 was downed while responding to an attack by four Israeli F-16 fighters that were attacking Syrian government positions in the coastal town of Latakia.
The Israeli airstrike was the latest in a string of about 200 similar strikes launched by Israel over the past 18 months with the stated objective of targeting Iranian forces as they have attempted to expand their foothold in Syria.
Reports said that the Israeli jets came at their target from the Mediterranean Sea and that Israeli defense officials only gave Russia a few minutes’ notice via a shared hotline before beginning the attack. The short notice gave Russia no time to pull its plane and personnel out of the line of fire.
In the aftermath, a Russian MoD official claimed that Moscow believes the attack and subsequent downing of the Il-20 was all a set-up. The Russian government says Israeli mission planners used the larger Russian plane — with its bigger radar signature — as cover for the F-16s, knowing that Syrian air defenses would lock on to the Il-20 much easier.
“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile,” the Russian MoD statement said.
Russian defense officials have raised the issue with Israeli diplomats and have expressed Moscow’s anger.
It should be noted that a French frigate, the Auvergne, was also in the area and that Moscow is claiming the warship also fired missiles, but it’s not yet clear how they factored into the attack.
Analysis: In the Russian MoD statement, the government is accusing the Israelis of not giving Russia enough time to get its forces out of the area, and given the information available at the moment, that seems likely.
Did the Israeli Defense Force miscalculate on this one?
The Israelis, as noted in the above report, have routinely attacked targets in Syria deemed to be a threat to the Jewish state’s security. Most of the time those attacks have been aimed at Iranian installations but Syrian government bases have also been targeted in the past.
Moscow, meanwhile, has repeatedly warned Israel against such attacks, as it is allied with both Iran and Syria, but Israel has ignored those warnings. Israel is situated in a hostile neighborhood, surrounded by enemies; Prime Minister Netanyahu is not going to be intimidated into inaction by a great power that may have interests in the Middle East but is otherwise dissociated from the region geographically.
But the downing of the Il-20 in the Mediterranean changes the dynamic dramatically. Moscow has already pledged to “respond adequately.”
It would seem plausible that Israel might use the ‘cover’ of a larger Russian aircraft to conduct its attack and protect its own aircraft, but to assume that the IDF took into consideration and accepted that a Russian plane would be targeted and shot down in the process is more than a stretch. Israel has an interest in protecting itself but no interest at all in provoking a military response from a major world power.
So what happened? Perhaps the IDF assumed that the Syrian ground controllers and radar operators at the S-200 site would be able to identify the Russian reconnaissance aircraft and would not fire on it. Or perhaps the IDF believed that Russia had enough time to pull its forces out of the region before the attack actually commenced.
At this point, we just don’t know. It could just be that the IDF made a huge miscalculation here. Now there is nothing left to do but see what Russia’s response will ultimately be.
Whatever it is, it won’t be a Russian withdrawal from Syria. If anything, Putin will bolster his forces there and make it expensive for Israel to conduct future strikes.