MOSCOW — The Kremlin appears to be attempting a delicate balancing act Tuesday as it sought to balance its mission in Syria with its ties to Israel, with Russia’s military officials and President Vladimir Putin delivering messages that notably differ in terms of rhetoric, tone and substance.
Moscow has conceded that the Russian naval patrol aircraft, an Ilyushin IL-20, was downed by Syrian air defense systems Monday night as it was flying over the Mediterranean Sea while returning to the Hmeymim Air Base in Latakia, Syria. As a result, 15 military personnel were killed.
Yet while Putin has characterized the incident as an unfortunate case of “tragic circumstances,” the Russian Defense Ministry has described the case as resulting from a deliberate provocation staged by Israel for the purpose of placing the IL-20 in the target sights of Syrian anti-aircraft systems.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday following talks with Hungary’s prime minister, the Russian leader sounded a tone that can best be described as sorrowful rather than vengeful.
“When people get killed, particularly so, under such tragic circumstances, it is always a great misfortune to us, to the country and to the relatives of our late comrades. I offer condolences first and foremost to the relatives of those killed,” Putin said.
“As for comparison with the well-known events (of November 2015), when a Turkish fighter jet shot down our plane, it was a different situation. This time it looks like a string of tragic circumstances,” he added.
The IL-20 disappeared from the radar as four Israeli F-16 fighter jets attacked Syrian government facilities in Latakia while deliberately using the IL-20 as a cover. Rather than firing on the attacking jets, however, the Syrian S-200 air defense batteries attacked the allied Russian plane instead, whose reflective surface is far greater than the far more advanced U.S.-made fighter jets.
“Hiding behind the Russian aircraft, the Israeli pilots put it in the line of fire of Syrian anti-aircraft systems. As a result the IL-20 … was shot down by the [Syrian] S-200 missile system,” said Russian military spokesman Igor Konashenkov.
He further dismissed the idea that the Israelis failed to detect the IL-20, which was in the direct proximity of the Israeli bombing raid and had been due to land at Hmeymim from a three-mile altitude.
Advance warning of the Israeli attack – which Tel Aviv has typically given to Moscow as a means to avoid head-to-head clashes between the Israeli Air Force and Russian Aerospace Forces in the busy Syrian skies – was nearly inconsequential, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
“The Israeli side didn’t issue a notification or, to be more precise, they warned us a minute before conducting the strike … They told us they were about to attack facilities on the Syrian territory, and they did it,” Shoigu said, according to Russian news agency TASS.
“We have informed today our Israeli colleagues, and I have also informed personally the Israeli Defense Minister [Avigdor Lieberman], that such actions will not be left unanswered by us,” the minister added.
Putin has promised only to indirectly address the issue, stating that “retaliatory measures … will be first and foremost aimed at additionally ensuring the security of our military personnel and facilities in Syria.” Putin has also stressed that “these will be steps that everyone will notice.”
Israel, for its part, has been unapologetic about either the deaths of Russian soldiers or its attack on Syria, whom it has depicted as responsible for the incident along with Damascus’ allies, Iran and “the [Lebanese] Hezbollah terror organization.” The Israelis claim that their aggression “targeted a facility from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
An Israeli military spokesman also contradicted Moscow’s account of the events leading up to the downing of the Russian aircraft, noting that past mechanisms preventing such incidents have worked effectively in the past years and “this system was in use [by Tel Aviv] tonight as well.”
The Israelis, In addition to occupying the Syrian Golan Heights since their 1967 war of expansion, have spent the last several years waging a war of attrition against targets in Syria who are fighting alongside Damascus to ward off the threat by jihadist opposition forces backed by the U.S., Israel, and a range of Western and Arab powers. Moscow has largely turned a blind eye to Israel’s constant aerial aggression against targets aligned with Iran, such as Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah.
Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident
— Israeli Air Force (@IAFsite) September 18, 2018
According to Russian authorities, about 108 Russian personnel have died in Syria while its military has lost about eight aircraft in various missions since the country’s military expedition began three years ago following an invitation by President Bashar al-Assad.
The dilemma illustrates the complicated situation Russia has found itself in as it has sought to balance its relations between a diverse range of allies and partners, many of whom – such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – act in stark opposition to one another in a Middle East ravaged by imperialist ambitions and geopolitical contention.
Watch | Russian Il-20 downed by Syrian air defense forces – MoD
Feature Photo | A Russian MP officer stands guard at the Russian air base in Hemeimeem, Syria, with an Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force is in the background. An Il-20 aircraft was shot down Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, by a Syrian missile over the Mediterranean Sea, killing all 15 people on board, as the Syrian military fired on Israeli fighter jets attacking targets in northwestern Syria. Photo | AP
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.