How the downing of a Russian plane over Syria put Israel on probation

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How the downing of a Russian plane over Syria put Israel on probation

It was bound to happen at one point or another: a fatal incident in the skies above Syria that would lead to a crisis between Russia and Israel, resulting in restricted freedom of operation for the Israeli air force over its north-eastern neighbor.

Both countries are operating in very congested airspace in which, despite all the technological advancements, the margins of error are very small. Considering that several other countries also operate in this airspace, preventing friction between them requires high levels of sophisticated coordination which, for the most part, works well.

What happened late at night on September 17 — when a Russian military aircraft was accidentally shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft defenses targeting Israeli jets on a mission, killing all 15 people on aboard — is still awaiting a thorough investigation. However, it illustrates the volatility of a situation in which parties with conflicting interests are operating in close proximity.

Moscow’s initial response was one that should have caused shock waves in Jerusalem. It came from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which laid the blame for the incident squarely on the doorstep of Israel as a result of its “irresponsible actions.” It bluntly accused the Israeli air force of deliberately using the Russian aircraft as a shield against Syrian missiles as part of a “deliberate provocation,” in the knowledge that the infrared signature of the slow and rather large IL-20 on Syrian radars would be much bigger than that of the Israeli aircraft and so make it more vulnerable to S-200 air-defense missiles. Russia’s defense minister warned Israel that “we are not going to leave such actions, such steps, unanswered.”

Russian behavior in the region, and beyond, has long given the impression of a country that not only does not mince its words, but also usually follows up its rhetoric with ruthless action. In both capitals, therefore, the highest echelons of decision makers entered into an urgent damage-limitation mode which, so far, seems to have been successful.

This in turn might limit the effectiveness of Israel’s containment of Iran in Syria, which would make Tehran the main beneficiary of the tragedy of errors that happened last week in the skies over the war-torn country

Yossi Mekelberg

By lunchtime the following day, Russian President Vladimir Putin exonerated Israel of any wrongdoing, describing the incident as “a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft,” drawing a clear distinction between this and the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in 2015.

To be sure, for a few hours before Putin’s intervention, this analogy must have been on the minds of Israel’s leadership, bearing in mind that on that occasion relations between Moscow and Ankara turned sour for a while. The growing sense of urgency led Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak on the phone just before Israel’s traditional shutdown for the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) holiday.

Netanyahu’s expression of sadness and sorrow at the death of the Russian aircrew, and his shift of the blame for the incident to Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, were not enough, however, to prevent Putin from ordering a halt to all land and sea movements along Syria’s coast for a number of days. This was a clear statement by Moscow to remind everyone of who is in control, and to deter anyone from challenging this.

For now the straight-talking about this tragic incident has moved behind the scenes, but the risks of escalation as a result of unintended consequences among the various forces operating in Syria has not diminished. As the military phase of the Syrian conflict edges towards its endgame, neither Russia nor Israel wants to clash with the other in Syria.

Russia is evidently unperturbed by Israeli military operations against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in the country. Had it genuinely wished to do so, it could have stopped these a long time ago. Consider that in recent weeks Israel has intensified such operations. It is estimated that in the past two years Israel has carried out about 200 air strikes in Syria, killing scores of Iranian military personnel — if not with the tacit approval of Moscow, at least with its willingness to turn a blind eye.

Israel at this point might be in a rush to hit as many strategic targets associated with Iran as it can before the Syrian war is over. Initially it tried to avoid getting embroiled in a conflict on the outcome of which it could never have had any decisive influence. However, Iran’s growing involvement in Syria, directly or by proxy, including in areas close to the Israeli border in the occupied Golan Heights, has increasingly unsettled Israel.

From initially aiming to prevent the conflict spilling over into Israel and the transfer of sophisticated weapons into the hands of the Hezbollah, its main objective shifted to preventing Iranian forces from establishing themselves permanently in its north-eastern neighbor. On this objective there is a commonality of interests between Russia and Israel; neither of them wants to see a strong Iranian or Hezbollah influence in Syria, especially after the anti-Assad forces are defeated.

Unsettling the Iranian forces in Syria, making them feel vulnerable and forcing them to go on the run, and to do so before the war comes to an end, therefore became a top priority for Israel, because if and when Syria becomes a state less embroiled in chaos and anarchy, it will be more difficult to carry out such operations.

The shooting down of the Russian aircraft and Israel’s indirect involvement in it has complicated the latter’s freedom of action in Syria under some sort of (semi-)plausible deniability. For the time being it has been put on probation by Russia, and it would be irresponsible for the decision makers in Israel to ignore Putin’s warning that such an incident cannot, and should not, be repeated.

This in turn might limit the effectiveness of Israel’s containment of Iran in Syria, which would make Tehran the main beneficiary of the tragedy of errors that happened last week in the skies over the war-torn country.

Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House and a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media - Twitter: @YMekelberg
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