Tensions have heightened after Syrian forces gunned down a Russian aircraft mistakenly, thinking it to be a Israeli plane. This has led to a bitter war of words between Moscow and Tel Aviv. Both Israel and Russia have a deconfliction system that has proven itself effective many times in recent years, and unfortunately this system was in use on when the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 plane was downed near Latakia in northern Syria by Syrian Air Defence missile after Israeli F-16 pilots used the Russian jets as cover.

The Russian Defence Ministry said that such actions can only be classified as a deliberate provocation. All the 15 Russian military service people died. Russia has held Israel responsible for its “irresponsible actions”.

Moscow also said that it reserves the right to take appropriate measures against Israel because of its actions which has been taken by the Kremlin as hostile. According to Russia, it could not be a mistake on the Israeli pilots’ part, as claimed. It is because the Russian aircraft was visible to the Israeli pilots. However, Israel has denied this.

The Israelis has put the blame on the Syrian government. According to Israel, its Air Force jets were already within Israeli airspace when the missiles launched by the Syrian Army hit the Russian plane.  Also, the Russian jets were not present in the area of the operation during the Israeli airstrike. Israel stated that it had warned Moscow about the planned operation one minute beforehand, which Russia’s Defence Ministry said that it was not enough time to get the plane to safety.

The Israelis said that Syria used extensive and inaccurate anti-aircraft fire that led to the downing of the Il-20.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also has reacted strongly. Moscow told Israel it will take all necessary measures to protect its military personnel and installations in Syria. It has closed the areas near Cyprus to air, land and sea movement from 19-26 September.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone with President Putin and expressed his condolences, but added that the responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane rests with Syria.

Prime Minister Netanyahu also reiterated that Israel is determined to prevent Iran from gaining a military foothold in Syria. At the same time, he stressed the importance of continuing the security coordination with Russia. Israel has sent a report on the incident which has been rejected by the Russian side.

An ambiguity can be found in President Putin’s observations on the incident. It is because on one side, he has been tough with Israel however, on the other; he said that it looked like a chain of tragic circumstances, because the Israeli plane didn’t shoot down the Russian jet. He also said that this incident cannot be compared with the 2015 downing of the Russian jet by Turkey. It is because, Ankara shot down the jet knowingly and the present incident happened unknowingly.

The dilemma in the Kremlin’s part can be because of the fact that a conflict with Israel, an American ally, means more problems externally for Russia. Kremlin does not want to get involved in another regional conflict, given the prevailing sanctions. On the other hand, it has to maintain its relationship with Iran which is seeking a stronghold in the region, despite the fresh sanctions by the US.

In this game of one-upmanship, the ordinary citizens of Syria are facing the brunt of the conflict. The theatre of war in Syria has expanded with many non regional players asserting themselves. Russia has its own interests in backing the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad. However, regional powerhouses that happen to be allies of the US are also interested in consolidating their positions. India has always called for a Syrian led peace process for halting the human catastrophe in one of the oldest countries of the world.

Script: Dr. INDRANI TALUKDAR, Strategic Analyst on Russia Affairs