A Russian military plane was shot down over the Mediterranean on Monday—an incident that, despite being the direct result of antiaircraft fire from its Syrian ally, Moscow blamed on Israel, another of its de facto allies. The incident shows not only the clashing tangle of competing interests in Syria as the civil war nears its end, but also how easily that dynamic can rupture carefully cultivated relationships.
At issue is the Russian Ilyushin-20 aircraft shot down over the Mediterranean on Monday by a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile, an incident that killed 15 Russian military personnel. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the aircraft was shot down after four Israeli F-16s flew into Syria.
“The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces,” the ministry said in a statement, labeling Israel’s action a “provocation.” The statement added: “As a consequence, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s ambassador over the incident; Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, threatened his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Liberman, with “countermeasures.” Israel, which has previously equivocated about its military involvement in Syria, took the step of acknowledging the air strike and “expressing sorrow” for the Russian deaths. It said it was targeting a Syrian weapons facility. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, were scheduled to speak to defuse the tensions, and indeed, Putin himself later called the incident the result of “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” an apparent effort to tamp down the tension.