By Darya Korsunskaya and Stephen Farrell
MOSCOW/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria’s seacoast was the result of a series of tragic and chance circumstances.
His comments appeared to somewhat defuse a possible crisis involving outside powers that back opposing sides in Syria’s complex civil war, after Russia’s Defence Ministry accused Israel of indirectly causing the incident.
The ministry said that while Syrian anti-aircraft had mistakenly shot down the plane of a close ally, Israeli jets flying nearby had put the Russian jet in the path of danger, and it threatened to retaliate over what it called a hostile act.
Putin told reporters: “I looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened.
“As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria. And these will be steps that everyone will notice,” Putin said.
He also told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone that Israel’s air force had been conducting operations in breach of Syria’s sovereignty, a Kremlin statement said.
“In this case, Russian-Israeli agreements on the prevention of dangerous incidents were not observed. As a result a Russian aeroplane came under fire from Syria’s anti-aircraft systems. The President of Russia called for the Israeli side to avoid such situations from now on,” the statement said.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said the Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 Russians on board, was downed by Syrian government anti-aircraft guns in a “friendly fire” incident.
But the ministry said it held Israel responsible because, at the time of the incident, Israeli jets were attacking targets in Syria and had only given Moscow one minute’s warning, putting the Russian aircraft in danger of being caught in cross-fire.
“We view the actions of the Israeli military as hostile,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian state television. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian service personnel perished.”
Netanyahu’s office said that in his conversation with Putin he blamed Syria for the aircraft’s downing but offered “all necessary information” for the investigation into the incident.
Any dispute between Israel and Russia could crimp Israel’s ability to carry out air strikes inside Syria on what it sees as the greatest threat to its security from the war – build-ups of Iranian forces or groupings of the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia.
Since intervening in Syria in 2015, Russia has usually turned a blind eye to Israeli attacks. Israel has launched about 200 such raids in the last two years, Israeli officials say.
Amos Yadlin, Director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said on Twitter the downing of the Russian plane could “limit the bid to stop Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the transfers of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.”
In a statement the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also voiced sorrow at the deaths but blamed the Syrian government and its main regional allies Iran and Hezbollah.
The IDF said the initial Israeli inquiry into the incident found “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian anti-aircraft fire “caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed”.
“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,” the statement said.
It added that by the time the Russian plane was struck, the Israeli jets were already back in their own airspace. The Russian plane was “not within the area of the operation” carried out by the Israeli jets, it said.
After the incident, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, that Moscow held Israel wholly responsible, Russian news agencies reported.
In his conversation with Putin, Netanyahu’s office said, the prime minister stressed the importance of defence coordination with Russia that had managed “to prevent many losses on both sides in the past three years” in Syria’s war.
Moscow said its plane disappeared from radar as it came in to land at the Hmeymim air base in western Syria late on Monday.
According to the Russian Defence Ministry, Israeli F-16 jets carrying out air strikes used the Russian plane as cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian fire.
“Hiding behind the Russian aircraft, the Israeli pilots put it in the line of fire of Syrian anti-aircraft systems. As a result, the Il-20 … was shot down by the (Syrian) S-200 missile system,” the ministry’s Konashenkov said.
He said the Israeli pilots “could not have failed to see the Russian aircraft, as it was coming in to land from a height of 5 km (three miles). Nevertheless, they deliberately carried out this provocation,” Konashenkov said. “This absolutely does not correspond to the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership.”
The Israel military said that overnight its fighter jets had “targeted a facility of the Syrian armed forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon”.
It said the weapons targeted in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia “were meant to attack Israel and posed an intolerable threat against it”.
Several countries have military operations under way around Syria, with forces on the ground or launching strikes from the air or from ships in the Mediterranean.
Foreign powers involved in the conflict – including Israel and Russia – operate hotlines to exchange operational details to avoid one side accidentally attacking the other’s forces. However, diplomats and military experts have warned that the risk of inadvertent strikes is high.
Separately, Turkey said on Tuesday it would send more troops into Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive there.
(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Maayan Lubell and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; John Irish and Sophie Louet in Paris; Phil Stewart in Washington and Nayera Abdallah in Cairo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)