Bottom Line Up Front:
- On September 17, Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean Sea.
- The Syrians were targeting four Israeli F-16 fighters that had just struck a Syrian military site in Latakia, but hit the Russian plane by mistake, killing 15.
- Russia immediately blamed Israel, saying it had ‘deliberately created a dangerous situation,’ but later moderated its tone and rescinded the allegation.
- The episode is a tragic reminder of how complex the Syrian conflict has become, with a multitude of actors and a shifting patchwork of allies and adversaries.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has regularly conducted air strikes in Syria to diminish the military capabilities of Hezbollah, as well as Iranian targets. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) recently stated that it had struck more than 200 Iranian targets inside Syria in the last 18 months. To avoid deadly mishaps with Russian military forces, who are serving as Assad’s air force in the conflict, the Israelis have maintained a deconfliction line of communication with their Russian counterparts. Moscow and Tel Aviv have relatively good relations and neither side wants a mistake over the skies of Syria to damage that relationship or lead to escalatory dynamics that could spiral further out of control.
On September 17, 2018, that mistake occurred at the hands of the Syrian air defense systems around Latakia. Four Israeli F-16 fighters bombed an unspecified military target in Latakia, which is also home to Russia’s main naval and airbase in Syria. In response to the attack, the Syrians fired an unknown number of missiles (probably supplied to them by Russia). One of those missiles struck a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 crew members on board. The plane was shot down over the Mediterranean Sea, about 35 kilometers west of Latakia.
The initial reaction from Russia was to directly blame Israel for setting off the chain of events, stating that Israel had ‘deliberately created a dangerous situation for surface ships and aircraft in the area.’ The statement went on to say, ‘as a result of the irresponsible actions by the Israeli military, 15 Russian servicemen have died.’ Such provocative language is difficult to walk back, but Moscow appears to have done just that, with a later statement from Russian President Putin in which he called the downing ‘a chain of tragic accidental circumstances.’ He also said the incident was different than the 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish fighter—which caused serious damage to relations between Turkey and Russia, though they have since improved—‘because an Israeli plane didn’t shoot our plane down.’
Israel also made public signs of regret for the tragedy and reached out directly to Russia. Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu would speak directly to President Putin by phone to express condolences and explain that it was the ‘indiscriminate’ fire by Syrian forces that was responsible. The IDF has worked closely with Russia to ensure that Israel can maintain freedom to maneuver in Syria, focused on diminishing the substantial Iranian support for Hezbollah and defending the Jewish State as necessary. The IDF released a long statement on Twitter detailing the September 17th raid, saying it targeted a Syrian facility ‘from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.’ It went on to add that the F-16s were back in Israeli airspace by the time the Syrians fired their missiles, and that the Russian plane was not in the area at the time of the raid. Israel also expressed ‘sorrow for the deaths of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire.’
The incident is unlikely to cause real diplomatic damage between Russia and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has visited Putin in Moscow nine times since 2015, mostly to ensure Russia’s tacit approval of Israeli strikes in Syria, where Russia maintains a sizable troop presence and influence. There will likely be some changes to the deconfliction protocols between the IDF and their Russian counterparts in Syria, and probably some intense discussions between Moscow and Damascus about improving the latter’s target discrimination.