On September 17, a Russian reconnaissance plane was downed, prompting Russian accusations of Israeli jet fighters using the plane as cover against Syrian missiles. Consequently, Russia sent an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria, a decision that was not reverted even after a visit from Israeli military officials and a telephone discussion between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Using an S-200 missile system, the Syrian Arab Air Defense Force accidently destroyed a Russian IL-20 aircraft whilst responding to an Israeli bombing mission in the Syrian port city of Latakia. Russia, however, suggested that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were the ones at fault. The accident resulted in the death of all 15 people on board.
Previously, Amos Yadlin, head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, revealed that Israel formulated a plan that aimed to remove the S-300 threat. However, the Israeli defence minister’s trip, as well as Netanyahu’s request for an urgent meeting with Putin, clearly demonstrate Israel’s anxiety about Russia’s decision to supply more S-300s.
Putin and Netanyahu seemed to have a tremendous relationship because the latter appeared to maintain a more neutral stance towards Russia in contrast to the US and Europe. Interestingly, in the last five years, Netanyahu has visited the Kremlin at least eight times. In addition, Netanyahu attended the 2018 Moscow Victory Day Parade, wearing the ribbon of Saint George – the Russian equivalent of the remembrance poppy.
It is possible that these symbolical gestures could become meaningless after the IL-20 accident. Although Putin immediately admitted that Israel did not shoot down the Russian jet, spokesman for the Russian Defence Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov, remarked that Israel was wholly to blame for what happened over the Mediterranean Sea. He later added that Israel provided false information about the location of the attack by four IDF F-16s that day.
Undoubtedly, the accident has posed a threat to Israeli–Russian cooperation and not only with regards to the Syrian question. Notwithstanding the importance of culture in fostering these ties, the essence of that cooperation is primarily political. Namely, Israel refused to take retaliatory actions against Russia after Skripal’s poisoning in March. Besides that, Israel tried to create a new platform to ease tensions between Russia and the US.
Overall, a sense of betrayal and a long-term plan to position the S-300 missiles in Syria were the root causes of such a diplomatically aggressive reaction from Russia.
Firstly, Russia was upset because it made concessions to Israel concerning Iran’s presence in Syria and Lebanon. Keeping in mind the recent anti-Iran speech of Netanyahu in the UN, that bargain was Israel’s big triumph because it obtained a permit from Russia to target Iran’s sites near its border.
Secondly, Russian Defence Minister Shoygu said that Russia planned to handover the S-300s to the Syrians back in 2013, but it did not do so due to a request from Israel. This means that Russia delayed the delivery until Israel crossed a red line in their joint activity. Therefore, the jet incident could be one of the points that could shatter the bilateral agreement.
Putin’s rejection of Netanyahu’s request to visit Russia was a watershed event for the Israeli side. In response, Netanyahu described Russia’s action as “irresponsible” and added that he briefed Putin about the goals of Israel in Syria in a phone call on September 24.
Of course, Israel have leverage of their own. The core threat to Russia is that Israel might reconsider its position on Iran and do everything to eliminate their presence in Syria. Therefore, Russia could lose a strategic ally who could use its forces to preserve Assad’s regime.
Moreover, Israel can gain more support from the US and Europe if its confrontation with Russia would continue to escalate. Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai stated that any form of S-300 presence could potentially disrupt future jet raids of Israel, UK, France and the US. The S-300 can intercept planes and missiles at a maximum range of 250 kilometres – posing a threat to both military and civilian aircraft.
Russia believes that S-300 delivery is a sound way to enable the Syrian Arab Armed Forces to distinguish Russian planes from the rest. On the contrary, Israel is opposed because of the aforementioned security concerns. Yet, these disagreements on their own are not clear-cut examples of an existing bilateral conflict.
In other words, there is a prospect for a large-scale security confrontation between the US and Russia. Indeed, there can be a big temptation to draw a parallel between an Israeli-Russian rumble in Syria and the end of the Second World War – when the Soviet Union was breaking ranks with its coalition allies in Berlin, risking the outbreak of a subsequent war.