An incident in Syria that Russian President Vladimir Putin has described as a “tragic chain of circumstances” has put Israel in a tight spot, leading to questions about whether Moscow will continue to give the country free reign over parts of Syria’s airspace.
“Israeli fighter jets attacked Iranian-related targets in Syria. Syrian aerial defenses tried to thwart the Israeli attack and accidentally hit a Russian Air Force plane with a Russian-made missile,” Amos Harel wrote for Haaretz in summary of the Israeli account of events, which, he noted, sounds like the start of a bad joke.
But the consequences of the mishap, which led to deaths of Russian crewmembers of the downed Il-20 plane, could be serious for Israel and might jeopardize its strategic freedom in Syria, Harel argues.
For starters, the incident is an embarrassment for Moscow, which only begrudgingly admitted that Russian-made weapons fired by allies downed the aircraft, leading to the deaths of its crew.
But the Russian defense ministry still blamed Israel for using the Russian Il-20 aircraft “as cover.” That claim is contradicted by the Israeli account that its jets were back in home airspace by the time of the incident.
Russian Defence Ministry: Russian Ilyushin Il-20 plane was downed by Syrian Air Defence missile after Israeli F-16 pilots used it as cover thus setting it up to be targeted by AA defence. Such actions can only be classified as a deliberate provocation https://t.co/qBcqPz2en6 pic.twitter.com/21mTTNXmpd
— Russia in RSA
(@EmbassyofRussia) September 18, 2018
Putin later toned down the Russian response, suggesting the deaths were the result of a “tragic chain of circumstances.”
What the Russian president’s words mean in practical terms remains to be seen. Harel speculates that Russia might demand earlier warnings before strikes, enforce a no-fly-zone near certain bases, or supply more advanced air defense systems to Assad’s army.
If Moscow wants to demonstrate a hard line this time around, Harel argues, it is capable of disrupting Israel’s freedom of action over Syria.