(CNSNews.com) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday the deadly downing of a Russian air force plane by Syrian anti-aircraft fire resulted from “a chain of tragic circumstances,” stopping short of publicly accusing Israel of responsibility, as his defense ministry has done.
The incident off the coast of Latakia in north-western Syria is testing the carefully-balanced understandings between Russia and Israel over the conflict in Syria, where Putin – despite backing the Assad regime and its Iranian allies – has generally overlooked Israeli airstrikes against mainly Iranian targets.
The Russian defense ministry charges that Israeli fighter planes intentionally used its Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance plane as “cover” while launching an airstrike against an Assad regime target late Monday, leading to the shooting down of the Il-20 as Syrian air defenses belatedly responded. The plane crashed into the sea and its 15 crew members were killed.
Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov called it a deliberate “provocation” and a “hostile” act, saying the Israeli F-16s could not have been unaware of the presence of the Il-20, and also complaining that Israel had given Russia only one minute’s warning ahead of the strike.
Although Putin, during a press conference with Hungary’s prime minister, said he aligned himself with the defense ministry’s position on the matter, unlike the defense ministry he did not accuse Israel of deliberate provocation.
He also disagreed when reporter drew similarities to Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Su-24 bomber along the Turkey-Syria border in 2015, which triggered a serious diplomatic rift.
“This was a different situation,” Putin said. “The Turkish fighter deliberately shot down our aircraft. In this case, it is more a chain of tragic circumstances because an Israeli fighter did not down our aircraft.”
Putin said the incident must be investigated, but in response to a question about retaliatory measures, said merely that such steps would be “primarily aimed at ensuring additional security for our military and our facilities in Syria.”
Earlier, Konashenkov had said the Russian military “reserves the right to take adequate tit-for-tat steps,” while Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia “reserves the right to take retaliatory steps.”
The Il-20 was shot down by a Russian-made, Russian-supplied S-200 surface-to-air missile system (known in the West as an SA-5), likely operated by Russian-trained Syrian personnel.
The Israeli Defense Forces customarily do not comment on military actions inside Syria, but this confirmed the Latakia strike, expressed sorrow for the Russian loss of life, but said the Assad regime was to blame, along with its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
“IDF fighter jets targeted a facility [in Latakia] of the Syrian Armed Forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” it said. “These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it.”
The IDF said an initial inquiry into the incident indicated that the Il-20 was brought down by “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
“The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air,” it said.
The IDF also said the Israeli jets were already back in Israel airspace by the time the Il-20 was shot down. And it denied that the Russian plane was “within the area of operation” when the F-16s carried out the strike in Latakia.
‘Crowded theater of operations’
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced sorrow for the deaths, and said the incident “reminds us of the need to find permanent, peaceful, and political resolutions to the many overlapping conflicts in the region and the danger of tragic miscalculation in Syria’s crowded theater of operations.”
He also alluded to the target of the Israeli operation, referring to the urgent need to “end Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria, which are a threat to the region.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed regret for the deaths during a phone conversation with Putin and pledged to cooperate in an investigation, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement.
He offered to send Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to provide all information necessary for the incident to be investigated.
He emphasized the importance of continuing defense coordination with Russia, which over the past three years had helped to prevent losses on both sides, the statement said. (As it does with the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, Russia has a “deconfliction” hotline in place with Israel, designed to minimize the possibility of unintended incidents in Syrian airspace.)
Netanyahu also reiterated Israel’s determination to counter efforts by Iran, in Syria, to transfer deadly weaponry to its Lebanese terrorist proxy Hezbollah for use against Israel.
A Kremlin readout of the call said Putin noted that the Israeli operation was “in violation of Syria’s sovereignty,” and that on this occasion agreements aimed at preventing dangerous incidents had not been observed.
“The Russian president called on the Israeli side to prevent such incidents in the future.”
Israel and Russia have coordinated closely over Syria, with Netanyahu having met with Putin nine times since Russia’s military intervention in Syria began three years ago.
The Assad regime has been Israel’s enemy for decades, but Netanyahu’s main stated concern relating to the conflict is that Iran will retain a military presence in post-war Syria that will pose a threat to Israel’s security.
Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli Air Force general and director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, challenged the Russian charge that the Israeli jets had used the Il-20 as cover, saying there was no such thing as “hiding behind” an aircraft.
Distinguishing friend from foe was a “beginners’ rule in air defense,” said Yadlin, adding that the Syrian “incompetence and recklessness” could easily have brought down a civilian aircraft. He questioned why personnel had launched missiles without bothering to check whether Russian aircraft were in the vicinity.
Yadlin said Israel’s expression of regret for the Russian lives lost, and transparency in debriefings with Russia “may well be the way towards ending this crisis, although grudges may linger.”