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The Russia – Israel crisis after the downing of the IL-20 spy plane by Syrian air defense

On the night of September 18, 2018, in an unfortunate incident, Syrian air defense mistakenly shot down a Russian military plane while the Syrian regime was targeting multiple missiles flying over Latakia. Russia says that its IL-20 spy plane with 15 servicemen aboard lost contact with radar near Khmeimim air base near Latakia. Russian media said the plane disappeared during “an attack by Israeli F-16s” and claimed to have “registered the launch of missiles from a French frigate.”


The Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigo slammed Israel on claiming that its “irresponsible actions,” led to the downing of the Russian military as Israel only warned it one minute before launching the strikes. The Russian Defense Minister spoke on the phone with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and told him that Moscow holds Israel wholly to blame for the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, seeking to cool tensions between the two countries, declared after several hours that Israel was not responsible. “It looks like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down our jet,” he said.


Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday he agrees with Putin that this was “a tragic mistake,” but laid the blame on Syria.


However, as expected after Putin’s declaration, Russia decided to close areas near Cyprus to air, land and sea movement from Thursday until next Wednesday “for the sake of military operations.”


The Israeli air attack was indeed a sensitive, if necessary, operation, near the Russian air base in the area and on the eve of the Jewish sacred holiday of Yom Kippur.


It will probably provoke more retaliation from the Russian side, most possibly the imposition of no-fly zones for Israeli aircraft in the Damascus and Latakia areas. On the short term it will muddle the already sensitive practical understandings between the two states. 


It is this author’s hope that the Israeli leaders will stand firm to the Russian challenge, as long as Russia does not act more firmly against the Iranian attempts to implant itself and its proxies on Syrian soil and build a platform for future, if not immediate, attacks against the Jewish State.


On this backdrop, see my May 2018 article “How Serious the Russian Threat to Israel in Syria? A Historical Perspective,” in which I argued that, in the historic perspective, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, have not been successful in providing the necessary strategic umbrella to their allied radical Arab regimes during their wars against Israel and the Russian weapons systems have suffered disgraceful defeats at the hands of the Israeli military. See at


It is however of interest to cite some relevant paragraphs, below, from a remarkable article in the Russian media published on 19 September by Pavel Felgenhauer in the daily Novaya Gazeta, which directly puts the blame on the Russian side, under the title “The Jews are to blame for everything! The Ministry of Defense is trying to disguise the self-defense.” The Google translated article is at


“On the night of September 18, the F-16 bombers of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bombed targets north of the coastal Syrian city of Latakia, where, according to Israeli intelligence, there were Iranian weapons warehouses with products allegedly destined for the radical Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah. The main Russian air base Khmeimim is also located on the Mediterranean coast near Latakia, but to the south of the city. 

The air defense forces of the Syrian Arab Army (AAA) of the Assad regime fired back at Israeli raiders and shot down with a long-range missile 5?28 of the S-200V air defense missile system (S-200V) the Russian reconnaissance aircraft Il-20 which came in for landing in Khmeimim after carrying out reconnaissance of positions of insurgents in the neighboring province of Idlib. Russia accused Israel.

After the start of the Russian operation in Syria in 2015, a purposeful program for the revival of the SAA, including the Air Force and Air Defense, was launched. Russian specialists were restoring equipment, local teachers were taught and retrained, gratuitous deliveries of components, spare parts and equipment from the presence in domestic arsenals were flowing from the Russian Federation via the so-called “Syrian Express”. The air force and air defense of the SAA were saturated with Russian experts and advisers. For the duration of the operation in Syria, the ground and air echelons of the VKS and CAA operate together and are practically integrated under the supremacy of the Russian military. Therefore, in Moscow, they found out almost immediately that the IL-20 was shot down by the “friendly fire” of the Syrian allies, and not by the Americans, the French, the IDF, or somebody else.

The situation was extremely unpleasant: the Russian military adviser at the Syrian command post for some reason approved the launch of a long-range missile S-200 missile near our base Khmeimim, which has an official range of 250 km and a real range of over 300 km. The command post (KP) of the connection in Khmeimim was also obliged to control the surrounding airspace. The KP knew about the scheduled flight of IL-20 and had to prohibit the launch of the S-200. But it seems that the Russian military has completely lost control of airspace and control of the air defense system in the area of its main base of the UHF Khemeymim, and as a result, in fact, they shot down their own IL-20. 

It was necessary to somehow explain such a catastrophe to President Vladimir Putin, and because it was the raid of the IDF that launched the “chain of circumstances” that led to the tragedy of the IL-20, the military leadership decided to bring everything to the Jews. It’s better than being responsible for your own sloppiness.”