Israel-Russia ties tested after plane downed over Syria

A motorcyclist drives past damage buildings in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Idlib on September 23, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 25 September 2018

Israel-Russia ties tested after plane downed over Syria

  • Analysts say they believe Russia and Israel will eventually move past the incident without severely limiting Israel’s freedom of action in Syria
  • Netanyahu has so far sought to strike a balance between expressing sorrow over the Russian deaths

JERUSALEM: The accidental downing of a Russian plane with 15 soldiers on board has tested relations between Moscow and Israel, which fears President Vladimir Putin will seek to curtail its actions in Syria as a result.
Analysts say they believe Russia and Israel will eventually move past the incident without severely limiting Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, where it has carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
But Russia, whose plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses after an Israeli strike and strongly criticized Israel over it, has since announced it plans to send an advanced S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military.
It also says it will jam communications of planes that attack Syria from the Mediterranean.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far sought to strike a balance between expressing sorrow over the Russian deaths, stressing his commitment to cooperation with Moscow and vowing to continue to act against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria.
“We will continue to act to prevent the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, and continue the security coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and Russian army,” Netanyahu said Tuesday.
But Netanyahu’s government has little choice but to take into account Russia’s anger over the incident and the potential risk to Israeli aircraft, analysts say.
In deciding to provide Syria with the S-300 system, Russia overrode years of Israeli opposition to supplying President Bashar Assad’s regime with the technology.
Eran Lerman, former deputy director for foreign policy at Israel’s National Security Council, called it a “very serious issue” that could amount to an “intolerable situation from an Israeli perspective.”
But he added that it seems communication “channels remain open and operational.”
“We don’t work for the same purposes, but we have a common interest in preventing clashes,” said Lerman, adding that there are “mutual understandings” that can eventually prevail.
Israel and Russia put a hotline in place in 2015 to avoid accidental clashes in Syria.
In recent years, Israel has carried out repeated strikes against Iranian targets in Syria as well as what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
It has hit Syrian sites where those targets were located.
Iran and Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, two of Israel’s main enemies, are backing Assad in his country’s civil war alongside Russia.
Israel also remains technically at war with Syria.
The hotline — or “deconfliction mechanism” as diplomats refer to it — failed to prevent Russia’s Ilyushin Il-20 military plane being shot down on September 17 by Syrian air defenses.
Syria was responding to an Israeli strike, and Russia accused the Israeli pilots of using its larger plane as “cover” while only giving one minute of advance notice for their raid.
Israel strongly denied the Russian version of events.
In a further sign of the seriousness of the Russian reaction, Netanyahu convened a meeting of his security council on Tuesday to discuss the issue before flying to New York for the UN General Assembly.
He said afterwards that he had agreed with Putin to have Israeli and Russian military teams meet soon to enhance coordination.
But Israel sees the stakes as too high to accept severe limitations on its actions against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, some analysts said.
Its pilots have already been trained to deal with the threat of the S-300, they say.
As for the Russians, they have not forgotten the 1970 battle when Israeli Phantom and Mirage planes destroyed Soviet MiGs stationed in Egypt in a matter of minutes, said Efraim Inbar, head of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies
Lerman does not believe the Russians are looking to escalate the situation, not wanting to compromise their gains in Syria.
But he believes that Russia will try to use the September 17 incident as a “bargaining chip in the larger game that they are playing with the United States and the international community.”
Russian expert Vladimir Sotnikov also does not see a severe downturn in relations.
“Russia’s only concern for now is to reach a settlement in the Syrian conflict because its armed forces are there,” he said.
“Israel is a very important partner for Moscow. It is an ally of the United States, with whom Moscow wants to renew dialogue.”

Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

Updated 7 min 43 sec ago

Syria flare-up kills 35 fighters, including 26 pro-regime forces

  • Russian-backed regime forces try to retake villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters
  • The clashes also left 26 pro-regime forces dead in the north of Hama province


BEIRUT: At least 10 civilians and 35 combatants, mostly pro-regime forces, were killed on Saturday in clashes and airstrikes that erupted at dawn in northwestern Syria, a war monitor said.

The flare-up came as Russian-backed regime forces tried to retake two villages seized by opposition forces and allied fighters earlier this month, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“Since this morning, the Syrian regime and allied fighters have launched five failed attempts to regain control of Jibine and Tal Maleh in northwestern Hama province,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian regime airstrikes killed nine opposition fighters, the war monitor said.

Ensuing clashes in the north of Hama province left 26 pro-regime forces dead, including eight who were killed in a mine explosion, the Observatory said.

In neighboring Idlib, regime airstrikes killed 10 civilians, including three children, the Observatory said.

The strikes hit the towns of Maaret Al-Numan and Al-Bara as well as the village of Al-Ftira, according to the war monitor.

The Idlib region of some 3 million people is supposed to be protected from a massive regime offensive by a buffer zone deal that Russia and Turkey signed in September.

But it was never fully implemented, as opposition refused to withdraw from a planned demilitarized zone.

In January, the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate extended its administrative control over the region, which includes most of Idlib province as well as adjacent slivers of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo provinces.

The Syrian regime and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing nearly 400 civilians, according to the Observatory.

Turkey said on Friday that it did not accept Russia’s “excuse” that it had no ability to stop the Syrian regime’s continued bombardments in the last opposition bastion of Idlib.

“In Syria, who are the regime’s guarantors? Russia and Iran,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told state news agency Anadolu in a televised interview.

“Thus we do not accept the excuse that ‘We cannot make the regime listen to us’,” he said.

His comments came as Turkey disagreed with Russia earlier this week after Moscow claimed a new cease-fire had been secured in the province following weeks of regime bombardments — a claim that was denied by Ankara.

Syria’s war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the repression of anti-regime protests.

Russia launched a military intervention in support of the regime in 2015, helping its forces reclaim large parts of the country from opposition fighters and militants.