Downed aircraft tests Russia’s patience with Israeli air power

An incident in Syria that Russian President Vladimir Putin has described as a “tragic chain of circumstances” has put Israel in a tight spot, leading to questions about whether Moscow will continue to give the country free reign over parts of Syria’s airspace.

“Israeli fighter jets attacked Iranian-related targets in Syria. Syrian aerial defenses tried to thwart the Israeli attack and accidentally hit a Russian Air Force plane with a Russian-made missile,” Amos Harel wrote for Haaretz in summary of the Israeli account of events, which, he noted, sounds like the start of a bad joke.

But the consequences of the mishap, which led to deaths of Russian crewmembers of the downed Il-20 plane, could be serious for Israel and might jeopardize its strategic freedom in Syria, Harel argues.

For starters, the incident is an embarrassment for Moscow, which only begrudgingly admitted that Russian-made weapons fired by allies downed the aircraft, leading to the deaths of its crew.

But the Russian defense ministry still blamed Israel for using the Russian Il-20 aircraft “as cover.” That claim is contradicted by the Israeli account that its jets were back in home airspace by the time of the incident.

Putin later toned down the Russian response, suggesting the deaths were the result of a “tragic chain of circumstances.”

What the Russian president’s words mean in practical terms remains to be seen. Harel speculates that Russia might demand earlier warnings before strikes, enforce a no-fly-zone near certain bases, or supply more advanced air defense systems to Assad’s army.

If Moscow wants to demonstrate a hard line this time around, Harel argues, it is capable of disrupting Israel’s freedom of action over Syria.