Syrian friendly fire incident causes Israel-Russia relationship to sour

The fragile working relationship between Israel and Russia in Syria – which gave Israel freedom of manoeuvre in Syrian skies – has come under severe strain after the downing of a Russian Ilyushin military intelligence plane, killing the 15 servicemen on board.

The incident, which occurred in mid-September, saw Syrian air defences accidentally shoot down the Russian jet, as Israel was attacking an Iranian military installation near the port city of Latakia.

New details of the incident were revealed in Haaretz this week. Israeli intelligence had ascertained that a convoy of military hardware was due to leave Latakia and make its way to Lebanon. The convoy included precision guidance technology for Hezbollah long and medium-range rockets. Israeli defence officials decided that disrupting this convoy was a matter of operational urgency. Although Hezbollah has a massive arsenal of over 130,000 rockets, few of these have the precision guidance technology needed to guarantee their accuracy.

Israel gave Russian officials four minutes’ notice of its F16 attack – though Russia claims it was only given one minute – before turning around and returning to Israel. But two minutes after the convoy was hit, Syria’s S-200 missile defence system fired off 27 rounds in all directions, with one missile hitting the Russian plane – even though the Russians were 200km east of where the IDF jets had carried out their attacks.

Russia blamed Israel for the misunderstanding, accusing the Israeli air force of using the Russian plane “as a shield” against Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

Israel strenuously denied the allegation, saying that Russian officers were given “full, precise and factual details” of the Israeli attack. Part of Israel and Russia’s working relationship includes advance warning of Israeli airstrikes, so that no Russian personnel or military infrastructure is hit.

These denials did not prevent Russian defence ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konanshenkov accusing Israel of “criminal negligence”, and the Russian foreign ministry of saying Israel had made a “deliberate provocation” by using its plane as cover.

After a bout of shuttle diplomacy between Israeli and Russian military officials, and a conciliatory phone call between Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin, the diplomatic fall-out seemed to be contained.

However, last week – with the downing of the Ilyushin providing justification – Russia announced the delivery of the advanced S300 missile defence system to the Syrian army.

The S300 is a notch above the S200 system Russia had previously supplied to Assad’s army, and will provide a more difficult obstacle for the Israeli Air Force to overcome.

Both the S300 and the more advanced S400 have been deployed in Syria since 2016, but only in the hands of the Russian army. This marks the first time that the Syrian army will be able to deploy significant anti-aircraft capabilities against Israeli planes.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials remain bullish about their freedom to manoeuvre in Syria. “The operational abilities of the air force are such that those (S-300) batteries really do not constrain the air force’s abilities to act,” said Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s minister for regional cooperation.

He added: “You know that we have stealth fighters, the best planes in the world. These batteries are not even able to detect them.”

Nonetheless, the fall-out from the Ilyushin incident demonstrates the fragility of the balance of power in Syrian skies, and the ever-shifting geopolitical tensions in the Middle East in the absence of serious US leadership in the region.

Iran’s priority is on building a permanent military presence in Syria from which it can arm Hezbollah and attack Israel; Israel is determined to prevent this from happening without intervening in Syria’s civil strife.

In this shadow war, Russia plays kingmaker. Putin had previously sided with Israel, giving it a free hand against Iran. But the Ilyushin incident may have hardened Putin’s resolve, and shows that Russia’s blessing for Israel’s covert operations cannot be taken for granted.