Russian officials Tuesday blamed Israel for the downing of a Russian military aircraft near Syria’s Mediterranean coast that killed 15 people, even though the plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses.
The aircraft, an Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance turboprop, disappeared from radar screens late Monday night as it was approaching Hemeimeem, home to a Russian military base located 13 miles southeast of Latakia. The disappearance occurred around the same time four Israeli F-16 fighters were conducting a missile attack near the Syrian coastal city, said Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, according to a report by Russian state-news operator TASS.
The Il-20’s wreckage was later found in the sea 22 miles southwest of Hemeimeem, Konashenkov said. He added it had been shot down by a Syrian antiaircraft artillery system retaliating against the Israeli strike.
“By using the Russian plane as cover, the Israeli air pilots made it vulnerable to Syrian air defense fire,” said Konashenkov, according to TASS.
“As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of the F-16, was downed by a missile launched with the S-200 system.”
Konashenkov insisted the Israelis “could not but see the Russian plane, which was approaching the runway from an altitude of [3 miles].”
Israel gave warning on a hotline set up with Russia “less than one minute before the strike,” Konashenkov continued, “which left no chance for getting the Russian plane to safety.”
“We view these provocative steps by Israel as hostile. Due to the Israeli military’s irresponsible actions, 15 Russian servicemen were killed,” Konashenkov said.
“This is absolutely against the spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to take adequate tit-for-tat steps.”
In an unusual move, the Israeli military acknowledged it had conducted the airstrike on Syrian territory controlled by the government of President Bashar Assad.
Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis issued a statement expressing Israel’s “sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire.”
He added that Israeli planes had targeted overnight Syrian army installations “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
“These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it.”
The United States, meanwhile, expressed sorrow for the fatalities. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a statement that the “unfortunate 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.”
Pompeo said the incident underscored the need to resolve “Iran’s provocative transit of dangerous weapon systems through Syria, which are a threat to the region.”
Israel has long accused Iran of using Syria as a conduit to funnel weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militant group and political faction with whom Israel went to war in 2006.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, on Tuesday that Moscow held Israel “wholly to blame” for the shootdown.
Israel, for its part, held “the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident” adding that it also “holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organization accountable for this unfortunate incident.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a news conference in Moscow, said the incident looked “like a chain of tragic circumstances,” according to a report by the state-run English-news broadcaster Russia Today.
Russia would investigate the incident, Putin said, and boost security for Russian troops in Syria.
“These will be the steps everyone will notice,” he said.
Later Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Putin.
According to an Israeli readout of their conversation, Netanyahu “expressed Israel’s sorrow for the death of the Russian soldiers,” laid responsibility for the downing of the plane on Syria, and underscored the importance of continued coordination between the two countries.
Although it insists it has not interfered in the seven-year civil war in Syria, Israel has acknowledged striking hundreds of Iranian-affiliated targets, saying the attacks are aimed at hobbling Iran’s impact in the region and preventing its entrenchment in Syria.
A report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog based in the U.K., on Monday estimated more than 113 members of Iranian forces and Tehran-backed militias had been killed in Israeli attacks in the last two months.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported late Monday that an unknown party had launched a missile attack on what it described as the Technical Industries Corporation in Latakia’s eastern suburbs.
There was no mention of casualties, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition watchdog based in the U.K., said the attack, which had targeted the munitions depot, left two Syrian servicemen killed and at least 10 other people injured.
“Our air defenses are dealing with hostile missiles coming from the sea towards Latakia city and intercepting a number of them before they had reached their target,” said a Syrian military source to SANA.
The downing of the Russian plane illustrated the difficulties in operating over the crowded battle space Syria’s skies have become, an area where pro-government air power, including Syrian and Russian warplanes as well as Iranian drones, contend with aircraft from a U.S.-led coalition along with the occasional Israeli or Turkish incursion.
It has made for a volatile mix: In 2015, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border, killing one of its crew members. That attack spurred a diplomatic row that saw Moscow impose economic sanctions on Ankara.
Fears of similar clashes pushed Moscow and Washington to create what reports have described as a 24-hour “de-confliction” hotline. Russia has set up a similar framework with Israel and Turkey.
Israel claimed that the system “was in use” early Tuesday, and that its fighter jets were “already within Israeli airspace” when the Syrian projectile was launched.
“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,” Manelis’ statement said.
Monday’s downing also hinted at the complicated relationship Russia has with Assad and Iran.
Although Russia works with both of them in the fight against rebels in the country, and despite possessing advanced radar and missile systems to detect and stop most attacks, it has nevertheless tolerated coalition and Israeli strikes on Syrian and Iranian assets — often without informing its putative allies.
That hot-and-cold attitude was on display Monday, when Russia and Turkey announced a demilitarized zone in Idlib, the northwestern Syrian province that has become the last redoubt of the rebels.
The agreement derails the Syrian government’s plans to launch an assault on Idlib; in recent weeks, government troops and their allies have positioned themselves around the rebel-held province, according to state media, with officials insisting an operation was imminent.
Speaking after a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Russian resort city of Sochi, Putin said the two countries would jointly enforce a 9- to 12-mile-wide demilitarized zone.
Later, Russia’s defense minister said there would be no offensive on Idlib.
Turkey would oversee the withdrawal of the opposition’s heavy weapons, tanks, missile launchers, artillery and mortars by Oct. 10, said Putin. Hard-line militants, including 10,000-15,000 Al Qaeda affiliated jihadis thought to be in Idlib, are also to withdraw.
Control in the demilitarized zone would fall to Turkish units and Russian military police, and transportation traffic would resume on major highways in the area.
“In general, the Syrian leadership supports this approach,” said Putin.
Syria’s foreign ministry insisted in a statement Tuesday that the agreement had come as a result of “intense consultations” between the Russian and Syrian government and “with full coordination between the two nations.”
But it gave a lukewarm reception to the deal, saying in a statement quoted by SANA that although it welcomed “any initiative to avert the spilling of Syrian blood” it nevertheless insisted it would continue “in its war against terrorism until it liberates every last inch of Syrian territories, whether through military operations or local reconciliation [deals.]”
Special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem and staff writer Bulos from Beirut. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.