Analysis: Downed Russian plane – A challenge to Russian-Israeli relations?

The recent accidental downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian fire seriously challenges Russian-Israeli relations and casts light on the increasingly complex challenges that the Jewish state faces inside Syria. 

By: Daniel Krygier, World Israel News

The latest Israeli military operation in Syria that led Damascus to down a Russian plane unintentionally, puts Russian-Israeli relations to the test. It also illustrates the increasingly complex war theater that Israel is facing in Syria.

Israel recently admitted that it had carried out over 200 military strikes inside Syria over the past 18 months. However, there are several factors that make the latest Israeli operation stand out when compared to previous strikes.

It marks the first Israeli operation that indirectly led to the downing of a Russian plane despite close coordination between Moscow and Jerusalem. An Israeli military delegation headed by Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen Amikam Norkin headed to Moscow to brief their Russian counterparts on the operation that resulted in Russia losing a plane and 15 deaths.

Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry blamed the loss of the Russian plane on Israel. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin later stated that the loss was a result of a “chain of tragic events.”

Another unique characteristic is the location of the latest Israeli Air Force operation. The target was a military facility in Latakia on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. While Israel has struck multiple targets throughout Syria, Jerusalem has until now refrained from targeting this sensitive region, which is the Alawite powerbase of Syrian leader Bashir Assad. It has a dense network of Syrian anti-aircraft installations that make operations even more risky.

There is also a significant Russian military presence with naval and air bases in the area. For Israel to strike in this highly sensitive region means that the target was of critical importance to Jerusalem. In fact, because of the Russian plane tragedy, Israel confirmed that it had targeted advanced weapons that were about to be transferred, with Iran’s blessing, to the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon.

The plane incident led to the worst crisis in Russian-Israeli relations since Moscow entered the Syrian war in 2015. However, despite the recent tension, long-term relations between Moscow and Jerusalem will likely remain strong. The reason is that Russian-Israeli relations are pragmatic and mutually beneficial.

Concerns on a different front

However, the latest Israeli military operation does raise concerns on a different front. During recent months, Russia and Israel reached an understanding whereby Moscow pressured Iran to move its military forces further away from the Israeli-Syrian border. The operation in Latakia raises concern that Iran and Hezbollah might be regrouping and deliberately moving its valuable military assets in close proximity to Russian forces.

If this is indeed the case, it will present the Israeli Air Force with even more complex challenges in future operations in Syria. It will also demand even tighter coordination between Moscow and Jerusalem in order to avoid a repetition of the tragic loss of Russian aviators.