By Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne and Nathan Hodge, CNN
Syria inadvertently shot down a Russian military plane after an Israeli attack on Syrian positions, killing 15 people on board, Moscow said.
The Russian military said Tuesday that the Russian maritime patrol aircraft was shot by by Syrian regime anti-aircraft artillery amid the Israeli attack on Monday, state news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
Moscow blamed Israel for putting its aircraft in the line of fire, Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti reported.
“As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian servicemen were killed, which is absolutely not in keeping with the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership,” said Russian Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, spokesperson for the Russian military, according to RIA-Novosti.
In a statement Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) responded to the accusations by blaming the Assad regime for the deaths of the Russian aircrew and claiming that the IDF had followed the usual procedures when carrying out an attack in Syria, including making use of well-established communication links with Moscow.
“Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident,” the statement said, adding that Iran and Hezbollah were also accountable.
According to the statement, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries “fired indiscriminately and from what we understand did not bother to ensure no Russian planes were in the air.”
The incident presents Moscow with a diplomatic conundrum, as the country has a strong relationship with both Israel and the Syrian regime.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday Moscow was “extremely concerned” about the downing of the aircraft, but declined to comment on further steps the Russian government might take in response or on any potential impact on relations between Russia and Israel.
According to a handout from the Russian Ministry of Defense of a conversation between Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his Russian counterpart, Army General Sergei Shoigu, Shoigu described the actions of the Israeli air force as irresponsible and said to Liberman that the fault for the downed plane and the deaths of its crew “rests entirely with the Israeli side.”
“We reserve the right for further reciprocal steps,” Shoigu said, according to the handout.
Anti-aircraft system ‘sold to Syria by Russians’
Reports of Syrian air defense activity and a missing Russian aircraft spread across Russian and Syrian news media Monday.
Russian state news agency TASS reported that a Russian IL-20 military aircraft disappeared over the Mediterranean. TASS, citing the Russian defense ministry, said the aircraft went off the radars during an attack by four Israeli F-16 aircraft on Syrian targets in the north-western province of Latakia, where Russia has based much of its military presence, including aircraft.
Separately, Syrian state-run news agency SANA reported that air defense systems had intercepted a number of hostile missiles coming from the sea into Latakia city.
The Russian military said Israel notified the Russian side about the planned operation only a minute in advance, and that Israeli controllers would have seen the Russian plane, which was coming in to land, RIA reported.
In a highly unusual move, the IDF released details of its operation in Syria Monday, revealing that fighter jets targeted a Syrian Armed Forces facility, “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
“These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it,” the IDF said in a statement Tuesday.
The IDF alleges that by the time Syrian anti-aircraft missiles had been launched, Israeli warplanes responsible for the overnight operation were already back within Israeli airspace.
The IDF also says that the Russian plane was not “within the area of operation” while the Israeli strike on Latakia was underway.
The aircraft was shot down by an anti-aircraft system the Russians sold to the Syrians several years ago, a US official with knowledge of the incident told CNN Monday. The Syrian air defense network in western Syria is very densely populated with anti-aircraft missile and radar systems.
In February, the two-man crew of an Israeli F-16 ejected from their aircraft when a missile exploded near them, damaging their aircraft as they finished conducting a mission against Syrian forces.
An Israeli defense official told CNN earlier this month that Israel has struck Syria 200 times in the past 18 months to prevent the deployment of Iranian weapons in the region.
Demilitarized zone in neighboring Idlib
The incident occurred on the same day that Russia announced a joint agreement with Turkey to create a demilitarized zone in Syria’s Idlib province, which neighbors Latakia, potentially thwarting a large-scale military operation and impending humanitarian disaster in the country’s last rebel stronghold.
Speaking alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at talks in Sochi on Monday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the creation of a 15-20 kilometer (approximately 9-12 miles) demilitarized zone will prevent a “humanitarian crisis” in the northwestern province.
All heavy military equipment tanks, ground-to-air missiles and mortars of all the opposition groups will be removed by October 10, the leaders said. The zone, which will be patrolled by Turkish and Russian military units, will become operational from October 15.
Erdogan described the agreement as a “solution” to the issues in the region.
Speaking Tuesday, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the downing of the Russian aircraft would not affect the Sochi agreement “in any way,” adding that “this is an important, breakthrough agreement.”
In recent weeks, Syrian and Russian planes have conducted scores of airstrikes in Idlib in the run-up to an anticipated offensive by Russian-backed Syrian forces to retake the last part of the country under armed opposition.
Last week, UN officials said that more than 30,000 people fled the province in anticipation of the government offensive.