Syria's chaos takes to the skies as Russian aircraft shot down

Syria's chaos takes to the skies as Russian aircraft shot down
The 'accidental downing' of a Russian military plane by the Syrian regime highlights the potential for conflict between the country's warring powers.
4 min read
18 September, 2018
The Russian IL-20M was downed off Syria's coast [AFP]

Given the situation on the ground of Syria, it was only a matter of time before the country's chaos played out in the skies above.

Besides the regular bombing of opposition areas by regime aircraft, over the past several years Syrian airspace has seen Russian, US, French, British, Israeli and even Iraqi fighter jets all operating in the same arena.

On Monday night, a Russian IL-20M reconnaissance plane was downed by the air defences of Syria's regime - Moscow's ally in the war - off the coast of Syria.

The Mediterranean mishap took place amid a confusing sequence of events that saw Israeli airstrikes on military and industrial facilities in Latakia, according to Moscow, which also operates an airbase in the coastal province.

Blame and counter-blame erupted between Israel, Russia, the US, Syria's regime and France in the following hours, until Damascus finally owned up to its mistake - but held Israel responsible for the incident.

Cooling tensions

For now, World War Three appears to have been averted, but the downing underlines the potential for conflict between the powers vying for influence in Syria.

Russia's ministry of defence - likely inflamed by the loss of 15 of its men - issued a strongly worded threat to Israel, warning of "consequences".

President Vladimir Putin provided a more measured rebuke, while Israel hurried to offer its "regret" at the loss of lives, in an attempt to calm the situation. 

Russian security in Syria will be beefed up, while better coordination will be arranged between Moscow and Tel Aviv, one analyst told The New Arab.

Such measures should be enough to avert a clash on the scale that took place in 2015 between Ankara and Moscow, when Turkish air defences show down a Russian fighter jet.

But the recent episode also highlights an apparent lack of communication between Russian aircraft in the skies and Syrian defences on the ground, and gives another damning appraisal of the Assad regime's military capabilities.

"We know that it happened during an Israeli airstrike in Syria, which are increasingly common," said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher at Conflict Intelligence Team, a monitor of Russian military actions abroad. 

"We do not believe Israel is to blame; it is mostly likely that the Russian ministry of defence is trying to highlight its lack of coordination between Russia's air group and Syrian air defence forces."

The Syrian regime's explanation for the mistake is that Israeli F-16s "hid" behind the Russian turboprop, leading to its accidental downing of the aircraft.

Such a narrative would be convenient for Bashar al-Assad - embarrassed by another mishap by his forces, and lay blame on a convenient scapegoat, Israel - but it is doubtful if Russia's leadership will be convinced by this account.

"We would put [this story] as unlikely. What we know is that Syrian air defence forces fired on a Russian plane, this suggests a lack of coordination... between [the] allies," said Mikhailov.

"This is yet another example of Russian interests intersecting with those of other regional stakeholders, the unreliability of local allies, and Russia's deepening Syria quagmire."

Testing times

It is clear that Russia's faith in its Syrian ally has been further shaken by the incident.

Yury Barmin, a fellow at the Russian International Affairs Council, said it also underlines the ineffectiveness of the S-200 misile system, and reflects badly on the abilities of Syria's air force personnel to defend its own skies.

This will change now because Russia will have to review the rules of the game for Israel in Syria.
- Yury Barmin, Russian International Affairs Council

"This leads to a lot of questions about how serious and how strong communication is between the two groups," Barmin said, referring to the Syrian and Russian militaries. 

"I used to think communication… militarily, was quite strong and there were no problems, but there appears to be a lot of miscommunication if I understand this development correctly."

This was also the first major incident between Israel and Russia. Both sides are understood operate a "hotline" to avoid such mistakes, but Barmin believes the warm political ties between the two countries don't tell the whole story.

"There's a political understanding between Putin and [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu, but between the defence ministries there's not much chemistry. There are coordination mechanisms but there's no friendship, no partnership," he added.

There is unlikely to be a serious deterioration in relations between the two countries, but Israel will have to tread carefully in Syria in the coming weeks and months.

At present, Syrian regime air defences are obsolete, with the S-200 missiles being "wildly inaccurate", according to Israeli reports.

Israel will not want to inflame the situation and provide Russia with an excuse to equip Damascus with the more formidable S-300, or to close Syrian skies to Israeli jets.  

But Israel will have to provide greater details to Russia on its operations in Syria, if it wants to continue its strikes on Hizballah and Iranian positions.

"This will change now because Russia will have to review the rules of the game for Israel in Syria."


Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin