Tuesday 18 September, 2018 Update: Russia, and Israel Address the Shootdown of a Russian Plane Off Syria

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The leaders of Russia and Israel have moved to defuse tensions after a Russian aircraft was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the middle of an Israeli airstrike on a target inside of Syria’s Latakia region on Monday evening. Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the telephone. Netanyahu expressed sorrow for the deaths of 15 Russian airmen, although he placed the blame for the incident squarely on Syria’s shoulders. Putin blamed it on a ‘chain of tragic accidental circumstances.’ The descriptions put forward by both men are quite correct, and highlight the deconfliction issues, and crowded skies in and around Syrian airspace. Putin urged the Israeli leader not to allow another incident like this to happen again in the future, and reminded him that Israeli air operations have frequently violated Syria’s sovereignty.

To put it simply, what happened Monday night was a friendly fire incident. A flight of four Israeli F-16s was moving to strike a site  being used by Iran to transfer weapons to Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. Israel informed Russia of the impending attack roughly one minute before it started. This was not enough time for Russia to clear the airspace. An Il-20 Coot, a Russian ELINT/SIGINT aircraft which is comparable to the US EP-3 ARIES II, was engaged and destroyed by a Syrian SA-5 surface-to-air missile site, which mistook it for an Israeli intruder. Russian defense officials claim that the Israelis used the Coot to mask their movements, knowingly placing it in the line of fire. Israel, of course, has denied this.

Russia’s anger is understandable. It cannot condemn its Syrian ally for the inadvertent attack thanks to the intricacies of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Therefore, Israel received the brunt of Russia’s frustration before Putin and Netanyahu moved to mend fences. Do not expect this situation to provide the spark for a larger conflict. Neither Israel or Russia will want this incident to have a negative effect on relations between the two countries, or the situation in the crowded skies around Syria.

 

Monday 19 June, 2017 Update: Dangerous Skies

 

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Since September of 2015 the skies over Syria have been crowded with combat aircraft from multiple nations. Russia, Syria, and the nations of the US-led coalition fly sorties on a daily basis, often in close proximity to each other. The threat of an accident or inadvertent incident has been a serious possibility since then. The Turkish shootdown of a Russian Su-24 Fencer in November, 2015 highlighted the dangers present in and around Syrian airspace. Deconfliction measures were taken between the US and Russia to minimize the possibility of a chance encounter between US and Russian warplanes, including a hotline that officials can use to inform the other side of air operations taking place in specific areas at certain times. Although there have been a handful of close calls, the deconfliction measures have largely been successful.

Unfortunately, the Syrian Air Force has been operating in willful ignorance of the rules. Yesterday, it paid the price when a US Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter after it dropped ordnance on Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the vicinity of Tabqa, Syria. The US fighter acted within the active rules of engagement which include self-defense, and the defense of forces belonging to coalition partners. SDF fighters are considered coalition-partnered forces.

Russia has reacted angrily to the shootdown, considering it to be an act of aggression. Sergei Shoygu, the Russian Defense Minister stated today that his country will now consider US planes to be threats when flying over certain regions of Syria. All US and coalition aircraft east of the Euphrates river will be actively targeted, according to Shoygu’s statement. In addition, all deconfliction efforts will be suspended.

If the Russians hold firm on these promises, the skies over Syria are about to become even more dangerous and the Syrian conflict is now on the doorstep of a major escalation. There is a very real danger of clashes between US and Russian warplanes happening in the coming days if things remain as they are right now.

It all boils down to how far Russia is willing to go in backing its Syrian allies. If Moscow concludes that Syria is worth a confrontation and potential war with the US, expect Russia to push the US even farther as the week unfolds.

Tuesday 24 November, 2015 Update: Russian Aircraft Shot Down

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After weeks of Russian aircraft flying in close proximity to the Turkish border there has been a shooting incident. Earlier today, Turkish F-16s shoot down a Russian Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after it violated Turkish airspace. The Fencer’s pilots had been warned repeatedly via radio that they had crossed the border and did not respond. As a result, Turkish F-16s shot the aircraft down. According to early reports, both pilots did eject, however, their condition is not known for certain at the moment.

It was just a matter of time before something like this happened. In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that many people feared would come about. Since the Syrian civil war erupted Turkey has staunchly defended its airspace. There were a handful of incidents between Turkish and Syrian forces resulting in the loss of aircraft on both sides. When Russian air missions began in Syria in September, Ankara warned Russia about keeping its aircraft on the correct side of the border. Despite the warnings, there have been some instances of Russian aircraft crossing into Turkey in the last six weeks.

The concern now is what happens next. Will this incident act as a vehicle for escalation or will it be a one-time affair? It is too early to know with a degree of certainty. The incident just happened a few hours ago and there are conflicting reports on whether it was ground fire or Turkish fighters that brought the Fencer down. There are also conflicting reports about the condition of the Russian pilots.