The overnight air strike by Israel in Syria was just one of hundreds of such attacks over the past year — most of them attributed, but few of them acknowledged, by Israel. Nonetheless, there were several highly unusual aspects to it — not least, of course, the accompanying downing of a Russian military plane, with 15 crew, by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.
This Syrian strike on the Russian plane, as a side-effect of the Israeli strike, is producing considerable tension between Moscow and Jerusalem, despite the security coordination that has hitherto been maintained between Israel and Russia in the Syrian context.
On Tuesday afternoon, Russia summoned Israel’s ambassador to Moscow to its foreign ministry for clarifications. Earlier, Russia stated that the incident constituted deliberate provocation by Israel, which endangered Russian lines, and that Moscow reserved the right to respond. In response, in a very rare turn of events, Israel acknowledged the strike, expressed sorrow over the loss of Russian lives, made plain that it blamed Syria for the downing of the Russian plane, and gave details of what had played out
The escalated friction in Israel-Russia ties, however, is not the only unusual aspect of this attack. The location of the targets that were struck was also out of the ordinary — and, again, this is because of the Russian connection.
The port city of Latakia is considered to be Syria’s main port city, the center of Bashar Assad’s Alawite Islamic sect, and a symbol of the survival of the Assad regime. Beyond this, however, it is also marked by a significant Russian presence.
The Russian air base Hmeimim, which is considered the most important in the country, is located nearby, to the south. Russia maintains several rings of protective anti-aircraft missile defenses around the base. This area was adjacent to the targets struck overnight.
Therefore, for Israel to have struck at targets in Latakia, the targets must have been critical. And indeed, the IDF, in its Tuesday statement, specified that the target was a Syrian military facility that manufactured “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Syria, for its part, said the target struck was a subsidiary of its defense ministry, known as the Organization for Technical Industries, which has suspected ties to the country’s chemical weapons and missile programs. “These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it,” the army said.
Unusual, too, was the very nature of the strike, at least according to initial information. First reports suggested that planes or unmanned drones had carried out the attack. Soon after, there were reports that it was carried out from the sea.
Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that a French destroyer even fired missiles in the course of the attack, though the French denied any involvement. Later, Russia said the strike was carried out by four Israel F-16s.
What is clear is that Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses responded with heavy fire — even if there were no actual targets, such as Israeli planes, in the area. Said the IDF: “The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and, from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid rising tensions between the two countries after a Russian spy plane was shot down by Syria during an Israeli airstrike.
“The prime minister, in the name of the State of Israel, conveyed sorrow over the deaths of the Russian soldiers and said that the responsibility for downing the plane falls on Syria,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
On Monday Syria accidentally shot down the Russian plane, killing all 15 crew members, when its air defenses swung into action against an Israeli strike. The Russian defense ministry blamed Israel, saying the IAF jets used the Russian plane as cover. However, Putin later told reporters that the downing of the plane by Syrian air defenses was a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
In their call on Tuesday afternoon, “Prime Minister Netanyahu noted the importance of the continued security coordination between Israel and Syria that has managed to prevent many casualties on both sides in the last three years,” the Israeli statement said.
The Kremlin said that Putin emphasized that the Israeli attack violated Syria’s sovereignty and also breached the Russian-Israeli agreements on avoiding clashes in Syria. The Russian leader urged Netanyahu “not to allow such situations in the future.”
Earlier Israel said its jets had attacked a Syrian military facility that manufactured “accurate and lethal weapons,” which were “about to be transferred, on behalf of Iran, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Netanyahu told Putin that Israel was “determined” to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, and the attempts by Iran, which calls for the destruction of Israel, to transfer to Hezbollah lethal weaponry (to be used) against Israel.”
Netanyahu also reiterated that Israel would completely share all the information it had on the circumstances of the raid and suggested sending Israel’s air force chief to Moscow to “deliver all the needed information.”
The conversation came on Tuesday evening just before Israel began observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Earlier Tuesday Putin confirmed that Israel did not shoot down the plane.
“It rather looks like a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” Putin told reporters, rejecting any comparisons with the downing of a Russian jet by Turkey in 2015.
“An Israeli jet did not shoot down our plane,” Putin said.
The Russian defense ministry on Tuesday morning had blamed Israel for the accident and warned of reprisals.
Putin said he had signed off on the defense ministry statement. “No doubt we should seriously look into this,” Putin said, speaking at a news conference after talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Israel said its deputy ambassador in Moscow Keren Cohen-Gat was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said there would be no comment on what was discussed.
Putin also said Moscow would beef up security for Russian military personnel in Syria as a priority response. “These will be the steps that everyone will notice,” he said, without providing further details.
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