With the downing of a Russian military plane over Syria during an Israeli air strike on Iranian targets, the freedom of operation by Israeli jets may now be at risk one of its most volatile fronts.
The incident on Monday has put Israel in a testy spot with Moscow, as 15 Russian military personnel were killed when the Ilyushin IL-20 was hit by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile fired by troops loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015. As an ally of Assad, it finds itself part of an alliance between Damascus and Tehran, the patron of Hezbollah.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
Israel and Russia have been using a deconfliction mechanism in Syria to avoid any unwanted conflict between them. With that, Israel has largely had free reign over the skies of Syria in which to carry out strikes on targets deemed a threat to the Jewish state.
Over the course of Syria’s seven- and-a-half year civil war, Israel has publicly admitted to having struck hundreds of Hezbollah convoys and other targets in Syria – more than 200 in the past year and a half alone – while keeping mum on hundreds of other strikes attributed to it.
A statement released by the IDF following Monday’s incident admitted to the strike, saying it targeted a Syrian military facility that was set to smuggle systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In the hours after the incident, officials in Moscow slammed Jerusalem, calling what took place “provocative” and “hostile actions.” They accused Israel of using the Russian IL-20 as cover to carry out strikes on targets in Latakia, where Russia has its Khmeimim Air Base
“As a result of irresponsible actions by the Israeli military, 15 Russian military servicemen were killed. This by no means agrees with the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to a proportionate response,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.
Only on Tuesday afternoon did Russia admit that its plane was shot out of the sky by a Russian- made missile fired from a Syrian S-200 air-defense battery.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has all but absolved Israel of responsibility for the downing, saying it was a “tragic chain of circumstances.”
He added that Russia will take extra steps to secure its troops and military installations in Syria.
The extra steps could range from reassessing the deconfliction mechanism to having Russian military personnel man Syrian air-defense systems or even provide newer, more accurate air defense systems.
Syrian air defenses are largely Soviet-era systems, with SA-2s, SA-5s, and SA-6s, as well as the more sophisticated tactical surface- to-air missiles such as the SA-17s and SA-22 systems. The most up-to-date system that Moscow has supplied to the Syrian regime is the short-range Pantsir S-1, which has shot down drones and missiles over Syria.
Last April, Russian Armed Forces Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoy said, “In the past year and a half, Russia has fully restored Syria’s air defense system and continues to further upgrade it.”
At the time, Moscow had been toying with the idea of providing the more advanced S-300 air-defense system to Syria, an idea Putin later killed in May after discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But with an inaccurate system responsible for downing one of their military planes, the idea might be brought up again with Damascus.
While Israel will very likely continue to strike targets deemed an “intolerable risk” to the Jewish state, Israeli pilots will have to remember the warning Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liberman: “Such actions will not be left unanswered.”