Judah Ari Gross & Raphael Ahren
Israeli and Russian military officials are scheduled to meet in order to address the growing rift between the two countries following the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli airstrike last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters before boarding a flight to New York, Netanyahu said Israel would continue to fight Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria.
“We will do whatever is necessary to protect Israel’s security,” he said.
The security cabinet, which met Tuesday morning, released a statement around the same time, with a similar message.
“The security cabinet has instructed the IDF to continue to take action against attempts by Iran to establish a military presence in Syria while continuing the security coordination with Russia,” the statement read, echoing comments made by Israeli defense officials over the past week.
Netanyahu said he spoke twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the wake of the incident and expressed his “sincere” condolences over the Russian servicemen who died in the “tragic event.”
In the three years since Jerusalem and Moscow agreed to establish a so-called deconfliction mechanism to avoid clashes over Syrian skies, Israel has been “very successful” in thwarting Iran’s effort to entrench itself in Syria and provide advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group, Netanyahu said.
“That doesn’t mean there weren’t exceptions, but by and large it has been a great success,” he said.
The Russian spy plane was downed while Israeli fighter jets were conducting an airstrike last Monday night on a weapons facility in the coastal city of Latakia, which the IDF said was going to provide weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and other Iranian proxies. It was shot down during a counterattack by Syrian air defenses and its 15 crew members were killed.
Since the downing of the IL-20 spy plane, Israel’s relationship with Moscow has appeared to be rapidly deteriorating.
Russia has accused one of the Israeli pilots of using the reconnaissance plane as a shield after the attack, hiding behind it to avoid being hit by the Syrian surface-to-air missile.
Israel has repeatedly denied the allegation and maintains that it notified the Russians 12 minutes before the attack — far longer than Moscow claims.
This crisis has threatened the coordination between the countries’ militaries, with potentially serious implications for the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to fight Iran in Syria.
Netanyahu said Tuesday that the IDF and Russian military would work to resolve the issue.
“I reached an agreement with Putin that work groups from the IDF and Russian army will meet soon for this purpose,” he said.
In his short press briefing, the prime minister made no mention of Russia’s latest actions in Syria: the decision to provide Syrian dictator Bashar Assad with the powerful S-300 air defense system and to establish electronic warfare equipment along the Syria coast, which could jam Israeli radars and communication equipment.
On Monday, both Jerusalem and Washington warned Russia against providing the Syrian military with the advanced surface-to-air missiles within two weeks, saying the move would further destabilize the region and increase already-high tensions.
Putin informed Netanyahu of the decision to provide Syria with the S-300 system in a phone call Sunday.
In response, according to a statement by Netanyahu’s office, “The prime minister said providing advanced weapons systems to irresponsible actors will magnify dangers in the region, and that Israel will continue to defend itself and its interests.”
Concurrently, US National Security Adviser John Bolton said Russia’s decision was a “major mistake” that would cause a “significant escalation” of tensions. He urged Moscow to reconsider.
Channel 10 news quoted a senior American official who noted that the system could also endanger US Air Force jets operating against the Islamic State group in Syria.
“Bringing more anti-aircraft missiles into Syria won’t solve the Syrian army’s unprofessional and indiscriminate firing of missiles and won’t mitigate the danger to aircraft flying in the area,” the unnamed official said.
Earlier on Monday, the Kremlin issued a devastating critique of Israel over the incident, accusing Israel’s air force of “premeditated actions,” and warning that the incident would harm relations between the two countries.
“According to information of our military experts, the reason (behind the downing) were premeditated actions by Israeli pilots which certainly cannot but harm our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov produced data that he said had been collected by Russian air defense systems in Syria purportedly indicating that one of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets was flying close to the much larger Russian plane. When the F-16 was targeted by a Syrian missile it suddenly veered off, resulting in the missile homing in on the bigger target.
Konashenkov also said that data showed that the Israeli jets remained over the Mediterranean Sea off Syria’s coast after the Russian plane was downed, though Israel has said its fighters were long gone by the time the Syrian missiles were launched.
Russia had originally agreed to sell the system to Syria in 2010, but scrapped the plan at Israel’s behest. However, the Syrian military has already received training on use of the system.
Shoigu noted that Russia had also intended to supply Syria with the systems in 2013, but had held back because of Israeli concerns. Now, he said, “the situation has changed, and that isn’t our fault.”
Peskov said the measures were “not directed against third countries but towards defending our own military.”
However, Syria’s Ambassador to Russia Riyad Haddad said following the announcement that Damascus required the S-300 “in order to defend Syrian land from Israel’s aggressive actions.”
Russia already has its own S-300 air defense system in Syria, along with the more advanced S-400 system.