The leaders of Russia and Israel have moved to defuse tensions after a Russian aircraft was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the middle of an Israeli airstrike on a target inside of Syria’s Latakia region on Monday evening. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the telephone. Netanyahu expressed sorrow for the deaths of 15 Russian airmen, although he placed the blame for the incident squarely on Syria’s shoulders. Putin blamed it on a ‘chain of tragic accidental circumstances.’ The descriptions put forward by both men are quite correct, and highlight the deconfliction issues, and crowded skies in and around Syrian airspace. Putin urged the Israeli leader not to allow another incident like this to happen again in the future, and reminded him that Israeli air operations have frequently violated Syria’s sovereignty.
To put it simply, what happened Monday night was a friendly fire incident. A flight of four Israeli F-16s was moving to strike a site being used by Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. Israel informed Russia of the impending attack roughly one minute before it started. This was not enough time for Russia to clear the airspace. An Il-20 Coot, a Russian ELINT/SIGINT aircraft which is comparable to the US EP-3 ARIES II, was engaged and destroyed by a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile site, which mistook it for an Israeli intruder. Russian defense officials claim that the Israelis used the Coot to mask their movements, knowingly placing it in the line of fire. Israel, of course, has denied this.
Russia’s anger is understandable. It cannot condemn its Syrian ally for the inadvertent attack thanks to the intricacies of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Therefore, Israel received the brunt of Russia’s frustration before Putin and Netanyahu moved to mend fences. Do not expect this situation to provide the spark for a larger conflict. Neither Israel or Russia will want this incident to have a negative effect on relations between the two countries, or the situation in the crowded skies around Syria.