Russia points finger at Israel and French frigate, as US denies it was involved in air strikes that led to a night of rumors and escalating conflict
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Syrian air defense mistakenly shot down a Russian military plane on Monday night while the Syrian regime was targeting multiple missiles flying over Latakia, according to reports. Russia says that its IL-20 plane with 14 servicemen aboard lost contact with radar near Khmeimim air base near Latakia. Russian media said the plane disappeared during “an attack by Israeli F-16s” and claimed to have “registered the launch of missiles from a French frigate.”
The complex battle that unfolded over Latakia on Monday night illustrates the perils of having so many forces operating in close proximity. In addition to Russian navy and air force in the area, there is Syrian air defense operating Russian-made air defense systems, and there are Turkish forces to the north, Iranian militias and alleged missile production facilities. This area in Latakia and neighboring Hama is only around 100 km wide and includes 80 km of coastline. The Syrian regime has accused Israel of numerous airstrikes over Hama in the last year. On September 6 new satellite images were released showing the consequences of an airstrike near Masyaf which is on the road from Latakia to Hama. On September 2 images from Image Sat International were also released along with a report on an alleged Iranian missile facility in Wadi Jhannam east of Baniyas and about 20km from the Russian naval facility at Tartus.
Syrian state media claimed their air defense was activated around ten in the evening on Monday to confront “foreign objects” coming from the sea. Video showed explosions, burning, and missiles searching skyward for targets. One video appeared to include the sound of low flying aircraft and showed a missile strike a target near a civilian home in the Latakia countryside. Another video from Latakia city itself showed people partying while missiles shot skyward at glowing objects. A photo posted online showed men who appeared to be sitting near the Beauty cocktail bar on the southern Corniche of Latakia, enjoying the view of the bay, while a massive explosion rocked a hill in the distance.
Initially the attack was described as simply “foreign” and pro-Syrian regime social media accounts speculated that it was either carried out by Israel or by the United States using cruise missiles. US Pentagon spokesman Navy Commander Sean Robertson told VOA’s Carla Babb on Monday night that “I can unequivocally say it this is not us.” Soon after Russia reported it had lost contact with its plane. The Ilyushin 20 surveillance prop plane was coming in from the sea. CNN reported that the US became aware of the missing plane because “Syrian forces broadcast an emergency search and rescue radio call.” CNN also reports that a US official “confirmed that Israel was responsible for the missile strikes on the Syrian regime.”
Russian media specifically alleged that Israeli F-16s were involved. The Russian plane disappeared from radar at 11pm which appears to be almost an hour after the Syrians activated their air defense to confront the initial round of attacks. Pro-Syrian social media accounts claimed that the attacks on Syria included strikes not only in Latakia countryside but also in Hama, near Baniyas and Tartus. Because of the proximity of these areas it is possible that missiles flying over Latakia from the sea, for instance, and heading for Hama could be mistaken for targeting two different places.
The scale of the strikes surprised the Syrian regime and set in motion a string of events that led to them shooting wildly and downing the aircraft of their own ally. This should not have happened, but it appears to reveal that Syrian air defenses do not monitor the flights of their Russian colleagues, or that the air defenses did not operate properly and inadvertently targeted a friendly aircraft as opposed to an enemy. To distract from the failure both Russia and the Syrian regime have pointed fingers at the French frigate Auvergne.
The air battles over Latakia came hours after Turkey and Russia had agreed to a buffer in nearby Idlib that would prevent a Syrian regime offensive. In Moscow there would have been calm after the discussions, with the looming battle postponed. Russia has had a naval presence off the coast of Syria in the wake of a large naval exercise earlier this month. The ships were likely in place in case of the Idlib conflict increased. In addition Moscow has been in a war of words with western states, accusing the Syrian rebels in Idlib of preparing a “false flag” attack of chemical weapons that would give the US an excuse for more air strikes. France is one of the countries that might have joined in those air strikes. This presents a complex and toxic mix of naval maneuvering off the coast of Latakia. It was in this context that the Russian plane was shot down, amid a crowded sky and coastline involving ships and planes of various countries.
The wild night over Latakia points to the potential for escalating conflict. Even as Turkey and Russia thought they had forestalled an Idlib battle, the airstrikes on Latakia show that one wrong move could lead to a mistake. Russia has its own air defense in northern Syria, including the S-400 system. Speculation has stirred over whether Russia would activate the system to protect its Syrian ally or to protect air strikes targeting Iranian targets in Syria. It appears the system was not used last night. With both Russia and the US pointing the finger at Israel over the airstrikes so soon after they occurred the tensions in Latakia are also higher than usual. Usually both Moscow and Washington remain tight lip on assigning blame for the numerous airstrikes on Syria. Over the last year and a half Israel has carried out around 200 airstrikes on Syria using 800 munitions, according to a September 4th report revealed by the IDF. On September 17, just hours before the airstrikes, the Syrian Observatory of Human rights also said that 113 Iranians and their militia allies had been killed in Israeli air strikes in Syria.