ANALYSIS: Crisis With Russia Will Affect Israel's Operational Capabilities in Syria

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 |  Yochanan Visser

A political crisis erupted between Israel and Russia on the eve of Yom Kippur after a Russian Ilyushin IL-20 aircraft was downed by a Syrian S-200 missile which was supposed to hit an Israeli F-16 fighter jet flying close to the Russian plane.

Russia reported that the 15-men strong crew of the IL-20 reconnaissance plane died in the incident and immediately condemned Israel for using the Russian aircraft as a cover for the attack.

At approximately 10 P.M. Monday night four Israeli F-16 warplanes approached a Syria or Iranian military facility close to Latakia in northwestern Syria while firing missiles at the target.

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) started the missile attack when the F-16 jets were flying over a French frigate causing the Russians to think the French navy vessel was involved in the assault.

"Israeli aircraft deliberately created a dangerous situation for surface ships and aircraft in the area," a statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense read.

“As a result, the IL-20, whose effective reflective surface is an order of magnitude larger than that of the F-16, was shot down by a C-200 missile," the statement furthermore said indicating the IAF planes had used the larger Russian plane as a shield against incoming Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

The Russians also reported Israel had given an advance warning via a special hotline only one minute before the F-16’s began their action and claimed: “they (the Israelis) deliberately went through with this provocation.”

“This is absolutely not in keeping with the spirit of the Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to adequate response," the Russian Defense Ministry warned.

The incident illustrated the very complex situation in Syria where warplanes from the US-led coalition against ISIS, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Israel are carrying out sorties and attacks in Syrian airspace while a myriad of militias and other forces are fighting each other.

Iran is, furthermore, continuing to build up its forces and also continues to deploy advanced weapons in western Syria while the U.S. and Turkey are trying to expand their military presence in the country currently.

The Russians have an air force base and a naval port in northwestern Syria and have deployed their state-of-the-art S-400 anti-aircraft missile defense shield in the country which they didn’t use on Monday evening.

This could be an indication the Russian military wanted to de-escalate the situation.

Instead, the Russians choose to instigate a political crisis with Israel. 

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liberman and told him Israel was wholly to blame for the downing of the IL-20 plane and the death of 15 Russian servicemen.

A few hours later Gary Koren, the Israeli ambassador in Russia, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow for a talk.

The crisis is expected to have repercussions for Israel’s ability to carry out airstrikes against Iran-related targets in Syria.

Until now the Russians have turned a blind eye on IAF strikes against these targets and have only condemned them.

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has invested a lot in the relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to maintain freedom of operation against Iran in Syria.

That could change now.

The Russian reaction shows Putin will not ignore the death of 15 of his servicemen and now apparently regards the Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria as a threat to the Russian military.

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