Jerusalem: Israel’s military expressed “sorrow” Tuesday over the deaths of crew members of a Russian military aircraft accidentally downed by Syria during an Israeli strike and denied any direct involvement.
The incident threatened to damage relations between Russia and Israel, which had three years ago established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in war-torn Syria.
“Israel expresses sorrow for the deaths of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” a military statement said in Israel’s first reaction to the incident.
“Israel holds the (President Bashar al-) Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident. Israel also holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organisation accountable for this unfortunate incident.”
It said the Israeli raid late Monday targeted a Syrian military facility where weapons manufacturing systems were “about to be transferred on behalf of Iran” to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.
Iran is Israel’s main enemy, while it fought a war with Iranian-backed Hezbollah in 2006.
Israel also disputed Russia’s assertion that it used the aircraft that was later downed with 15 crew aboard as cover while it carried out the strike.
“During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation,” the military statement said.
It added that “when the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, (Israeli) jets were already within Israeli airspace”.
“Extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft (surface-to-air missile) fire caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed,” the statement said.
– ‘Full blame’ –
Israel has vowed to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria and a string of recent strikes there that have killed Iranians has been attributed to the country.
It rarely confirms such raids publicly, though earlier this month the military said it had carried out some 200 strikes in Syria over the past year and a half, mainly against Iranian targets.
Israel also acknowledges carrying out dozens of strikes to stop what it describes as advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
Iran, Russia and Hezbollah are all backing Assad in his country’s civil war.
Israel has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian war and in 2015 established a hotline with Russia to avoid accidental clashes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also held a series of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent months regarding Syria and Iran’s presence there.
Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was to speak with Putin by phone again soon.
After Monday’s incident, Russia’s defence ministry said “full blame” rests with the Israeli aircraft which carried out strikes on Syria’s Latakia province and “used the Russian plane as a cover”.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu discussed the incident with his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, warning that Moscow could retaliate with unspecified “measures”.
But Russia is unlikely to take strong measures against Israel, according to Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence.
“I think it would be against their interests,” he told AFP. “They are now concentrating on reintegrating Syria, dealing with Idlib,” the last rebel stronghold in the country’s seven-year civil war.