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Russia again says Israel is to blame for the downing of its military plane by Syrian forces

Russia again says Israel is to blame for the downing of its military plane by Syrian forces
A computer simulation from the Russian Defense Ministry purports to show Israeli jets near the Russian reconnaissance plane, shown in red, off Syria's coast before it was accidentally shot down by Syrian forces last week, killing all 15 aboard. (Associated Press)

Russia on Sunday again blamed Israel for the downing of one of its military aircraft off Syria’s Mediterranean coast last week, saying an Israeli fighter jet used the Russian plane as a shield from Syrian government forces.

The Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane was hit by Syrian government forces Sept. 17, killing all 15 Russian military personnel on board. Israel has acknowledged that it had conducted an airstrike on Syrian territory controlled by President Bashar Assad.

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Information obtained by the Russian Defense Ministry “points to either lack of professionalism or criminal negligence,” ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said at a briefing Sunday in Moscow, the Tass news agency reported.

The Russian military initially blamed Israel for the downed aircraft. A day later, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that the plane’s downing was “a chain of tragic, fatal circumstances.”

Putin’s comments may have been an attempt to avoid a conflict with Israel in what is already a chaotic, seven-year war in Syria with several different forces operating on various sides. The Russian Defense Ministry’s statements Sunday, however, placed the blame squarely on Israel.

“The Israeli military command either does not value the current level of relations with Russia or does not control certain military units,” Konashenkov said Sunday, according to Russian media.

Russia has backed Assad’s government forces, while Israel has conducted airstrikes against Iran-linked forces operating along its border. The two militaries cooperate through a “deconfliction line” to prevent incidents. Russia in July assured Israel it would get Iran to pull Tehran-backed militias away from Israel’s border.

Konashenkov said Israel’s actions showed "a highly ungrateful response to everything that Russia has done for the state of Israel recently."

Israel is eager to avoid any fault for the downing; it has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria tolerated by Russia.

Through that arrangement, Israel has attacked what it says are Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria with the aim of reducing Iran’s influence in the region and preventing advanced weapons from reaching the hands of Hezbollah, the Tehran-backed Lebanese Shiite armed faction and political party.

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the military aircraft was shot down before landing at the Hmeimim air base. An Israeli military officer misled the Russians by reporting that four of its F-16 fighter jets would be hitting Syrian targets in the north, the Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said. In fact, the Israeli jets were in Latakia, in Syria’s west, and used the Russian Il-20 as a shield to bypass Syrian government forces’ radar systems, the spokesman said.

The Israeli military again insisted Sunday that it was not involved in the downing of the Russian military aircraft. Israel’s investigation into the incident showed that its jets “did not hide behind any aircraft and that the Israeli aircraft were in Israeli airspace at the time of the downing of the Russian plane,” according to a statement released by the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel said its air force had complied with the mutually agreed-upon “deconfliction mechanism” at the time of the incident.

“The coordination between [Israel Defense Forces] and the Russian military has proven its value numerous times over the last years. The continuation of the coordination is a shared interest in light of the various regional challenges,” the Israeli statement said.

Ayres is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Nabih Bulos in Beirut and special correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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