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Syrian conflict

Vladimir Putin sees downing of Russian plane off Syria as accidental ‘tragic chance events’

Remarks by the Russian president seemed to defuse a possible crisis after the Defence Ministry blamed Israel for indirectly causing the attack

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 1:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2018, 5:49am

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that the shooting down of a Russian military plane near Syria’s coast was the result of a series of tragic and chance circumstances – walking back claims by his own ministers that Israel was at fault.

His comments appeared to somewhat defuse a possible crisis after Russia’s Defence Ministry accused Israel of indirectly causing the incident. It 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.

“It 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,” Putin told reporters. “But, without any doubt we need to seriously get to the bottom of what happened.”

Putin said Moscow’s response would aim to secure the safety of Russian military personnel in Syria’s complicated civil war, in which various outside powers have backed opposing sides.

“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.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said the IL-20 reconnaissance aircraft, with 15 Russians on board, was brought down by Syrian government anti-aircraft guns in a “friendly fire” incident. All 15 were killed.

But the ministry said it held Israel responsible because, at the time it happened, 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 crossfire.

Syrian war could produce century’s ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’

“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.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Putin by phone on Tuesday and blamed Syria for the aircraft’s downing but offered “all necessary information” for the investigation into the incident, Netanyahu’s office said.

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 Shiite 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.

In a statement, the Israel Defence 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 surface-to-air anti-aircraft fire “caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed”.

US lacks leverage as assault on Syrian enclave looms

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 protracted 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.