Relations between Israel and Russia are on a knife edge. Events in the Middle East are moving at a very fast pace. With the downing of a Russian IL-20 reconnaissance plane on September 17th, it would seem that Russia, sensing an opportunity, is trying to both reset relations with Israel as well as redraw the operational limits of their own involvement in Syria and the Middle Eastern theatre. They are doing this whilst at the same time drastically curtailing Israel’s ability to act against her ever-more-entrenched regional enemies in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
Events began on September 17th with an Israeli Defense Force attack on a Syrian military facility located in Latakia. It was believed by Israel to be housing a lethal, high precision weapons systems bound for use by Hezbollah in Lebanon, something that has always been a very clear red line for the Jewish State.
After the successful airstrikes, the Israeli F-16 warplanes were engaged by Syrian air defenses. As a direct consequence of Syria’s wide-ranging and highly imprecise anti-air fire, a Russian IL-20 military plane with 15 Russian servicemen on board was shot down over the Mediterranean. All Russian servicemen died. This has created a firestorm for Israel, one which has the potential to severely impede her operational capabilities, not only in Syria but also in her ability to successfully defend her own homeland.
Immediately following the downing of the Russian IL-20 plane, Israel dispatched senior IDF commanders to Russia with the aim of clarifying that the responsibility for this unforeseen tragedy lay squarely at the door of the Syrian government. To that end, Major General Amikam Nurkin travelled to Moscow to brief senior Russia officers personally, presenting them with the data and findings from the IDF’s own investigation.
To be blunt, the IDF’s conclusions were rebuffed. That is an understatement. After concluding its own investigation, the Russian military came to the conclusion that it was in fact Israel that was solely to blame for the downing of the Russian IL-20, not Syria, and that Israel was exclusively to blame for the loss of the 15 Russian servicemen.
This accusation has rocked the IDF, and the shock felt within the Israeli military has been exacerbated by the increasingly bellicose accusations and charges laid against the IDF from the Russian military and its Defense Ministry.
On Sunday, 23rd September, the Russian Defense Ministry publically gave its own account of what happened on September 17th. The Russian Defence Ministry lays the entire blame for the incident squarely with the IDF. Worse still, Russian Major General Igor Konashenkov has openly claimed that the IDF has actively misled Russia about the location of its planned airstrikes in Syria, and that because of this the Russian IL-20 was prevented from being moved to a safe zone. Russia is declaring this as a direct breach of the 2015 Russian-Israeli agreements made to try to prevent clashes in Syria between Russian armed forces and Israel’s.
But Major General Igor Konashenkov wasn’t finished there. He went further. General Konashenkov continued by asserting that Israeli F-16 fighter jets had used the IL-20 as a “shield” against Syrian air defense systems, thereby purposely endangering the aircraft and all the Russian personnel on board. In so declaring, he has directly contradicted the IDF’s claim that the Israeli F-16’s were already home in Israeli airspace when the IL-20 was hit and shot down. He is publically asserting that Israel lied to them.
The Russian briefing concluded ominously by claiming that Israeli military personnel have acted with “criminal negligence,” and that they are exclusively to blame for the loss of Russian life.
The Russians, as a consequence, have now declared electronic war on Israel over the skies of both Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. In quick time, the Russian military has armed Syria with the S-300 air defense system and will also immediately start jamming all “enemy” navigation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Syrian electronic air defense capabilities will now be increased to the same levels as the Russian forces currently operating within Syria.
Shoigu continued, “Russia will jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communications systems of combat aircraft which attack targets in the Syrian territory, in the regions over the Mediterranean Sea bordering with Syria.”
Shoigu then concluded with a thinly veiled threat to Israel, stating that if these new measures “fail to cool hotheads, we will have to respond in line with the current situation.”
This is certainly a huge blow to Israel and will severely impede Israel’s ability to act within the Syrian theatre. The temperature in the Middle East has just shot up a number of notches. This is the first time in history that one nation has openly declared electronic warfare against another nation-state.
To this end, the first deliveries of Russian Krasukha-4 electronic warfare units have now been delivered to Syria. As well as neutralizing ground and airborne radars, these units can also jam and severely disrupt spy satellites. This system can jam all forms of communications systems, disable guided missiles, aircraft and radars, and be used as a platform to attack enemy electronic warfare capable units. These combined Russian measures will have the result of significantly hampering Israel’s ability to operate successfully within Syria, or even to monitor at least to the same degree, what is actually going on there “on the ground.”
Netanyahu has declared that, irrelevant of these new measures, Israel will continue to take the action necessary to prevent the embedding of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. Such grand statements are meaningless though as even Netanyahu himself, speaking on the sidelines of the recent UN summit, openly acknowledged that this “accident with the IL-20 may have serious consequences” – many of which may be as yet unforeseen. Netanyahu’s comments are an explicit acknowledgement that the dynamic in Syria may have changed significantly.
The delivery of these new S-300 missiles, whilst not the most cutting edge weaponry available, will certainly complicate Israel’s ability to act unimpeded in Syria. As Israeli journalist Barak Ravid observed, the move “could limit the Israeli air force’s freedom of operation in Syria.” (1).
The delivery of these missiles and Russia’s declaration that they will interfere electronically with Israeli electronic warfare capabilities matter. They matter because, short of the obvious military impediment Israel now faces, the move also threatens to unravel a military and political alliance between Israel and Russia that has thus far kept them, and more importantly the other major world powers, backing up both sides from coming into direct conflict in Syria.
Israel will now have to be exceptionally careful and will need to calculate each and every potential intervention against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria in a way it has not had to before. Given that Israel has already conducted hundreds of operations in Syria and will likely continue to do so in the future, the likelihood of an Israeli jet being shot down by enhanced Syrian air defense systems has now significantly risen. If such an eventuality does arise and Israeli planes are shot down, or pilots injured or captured, then the likelihood that this may in turn provoke a wider regional flare-up increases dramatically. Israel, Iran, Syria, Russia and the United States could all be dragged into open and direct confrontation.
The bottom line for how this crisis concludes rests with Putin, although at this stage it appears that the outcome will be a severe restriction of Israel’s freedom of action over Syria. Amongst all the uncertainty though, one thing does however remain unchanged; Iran is still, without question, absolutely determined to continue transferring arms to Hezbollah.
The real test will be when Israeli intelligence, at some point in the near future, suggests that Iran is once again attempting to smuggle sophisticated arms and weaponry into Lebanon. What happens then, when Israel feels absolutely obliged to act? Will they? And if they do, what will Russia do? And will this be containable?
Only time will tell.