If Syria shoots down a Russian jet, shouldn’t Russia be angry with … Syria? One might think so, but the Russian defense ministry has other ideas. After Syrian anti-aircraft fire took down a Russian surveillance plane with 15 on board, Moscow threatened Israel with retaliation, accusing them of masking their attacks on Iranian installations as they targeted weapons transfers to Hezbollah:
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, the ministry spokesman, told reporters that 15 people were killed late Monday after Syrian air defenses — activated in response to Israeli strikes — hit a Russian surveillance plane as it scrambled to leave the area.
“By using the Russian plane as a cover, the Israeli air pilots made it vulnerable to Syrian air defense fire,” Konashenkov said. “As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of an F-16, was downed by a missile launched with the S-200 system.”
He added that Israel gave Russia only a minute’s warning before launching the attack.
“Russia reserves the right to take appropriate measures against hostile actions by Israel,” Konashenkov said.
How serious is this? BBC defense reporter Jonathan Marcus thinks “Russia’s anger is real,” but their blamecasting is mainly for show:
The Israeli Air Force has Russian-speaking air traffic controllers able to communicate with their Russian opposite numbers. But Moscow says they were informed of the Israeli raid with only one minute’s notice.
Secondly Russia charges – more seriously – that the Israelis used the large radar signature of the Ilyushin turbo-prop to mask their own aircraft.
But the radar signatures of the relatively slow Ilyushin and four nimble F-16 jets are radically different.
Furthermore, the Syrian air defences should have known the Russian plane was in-bound, whatever the Israelis were doing.
There may be several contributory factors in this tragedy. Russia cannot publicly castigate its Syrian allies. In private things may be rather different.
It’s even more curious than that. When two or three allies coordinate forces, as Russia has with Syria and Iran, they use communications protocols to identify friendly aircraft in the air. The US has IFF (for Identification Friend or Foe) and Combat Identification (CID), and it is all but unimaginable that Russia doesn’t have a similar protocol. Syrian air defenses would have to be part of that system. Either the plane didn’t have its IFF transponder activated or the Syrian defense forces failed to recognize it.
The problem Russia faces here is twofold. They can’t afford to draw Donald Trump into the war with an attack on Israel just as they’re stabilizing Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial reign after seven years of civil war. They also can’t afford to have Israel getting mixed up in the war, as the Syrian regime has long been incompetent at dealing with the IDF.
The root of both those problems is Iran, their ally, or their ally once removed, in this war. As long as Iran continues to build its forward military assets toward Israel and their direct weapons transfers to Hezbollah, the Israelis will need to disrupt both. They will need to confound Syrian air defenses to succeed in those missions, which now appears to be a fairly easy task. That puts Russian air assets at much greater risk, but that’s not the fault of the Israelis.
The solution to this is simple: demand the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. Russia’s military should be strong enough to help Assad hold his gains. Iran’s malevolent aims in the region will eventually threaten Russian interests, even if Putin doesn’t see that long-term problem at the moment. As long as they threaten Israel and creep ever closer to its borders, Russia comes closer to a violent regional war that won’t stay limited to Israel and Iran. That’s why they probably should have refrained from intervening in the first place.