So now the dust (or, perhaps, some measure of the ‘fog of war’) is starting to clear over Monday’s events in Syria, it’s probably prudent to reflect on what Putin can and should do in response to what has occurred.
At this stage, and especially given Russia’s previously positive relationship with Israel, the “right” being reserved here is very unlikely to include direct military action.
But before I put forward what I have in mind instead of this, let us briefly parse the likely course of events which have lead us to this point:
Everybody agrees that on Monday evening, four Israeli F-16s carried out a missile-strike against Syrian targets in Latakia; and that in the course of this, a Russian electronic reconnaissance plane – an IL-20 – was shot down over the Mediterranean.
American media accounts have tended to basically stop there, except to occasionally add that it seems likely that Syrian air-defences were directly responsible for the shooting down of the IL-20.
As it happens, Russian Defence Ministry statements have confirmed this – noting that it appears that a Syrian S-200 SAM was indeed what brought down the IL-20. However, they have also stated, and at this stage there appears no reason to disbelieve them, that the Israelis deliberately took advantage of the IL-20’s radar profile to provide cover for their incoming F-16s.
Now, an IL-20 is a pretty massive aircraft. It’s roughly thirty six meters long, with a thirty seven meter wingspan; and would have represented the single largest object in the sky at that point, with its turboprop-derived lower speed and regular figure-of-eight flight-path making for a pretty predictable source of screening.
A further piece of evidence in support of this contention, is that the Israelis only sought to notify the Russians of their operation … approximately one minute before the commencement of hostilities.
This matters; as it is a considerable break from how the Israelis have handled the previous two hundred or so airstrikes they’ve carried out in Syria over the past year and a half – wherein in order to avoid exactly these sorts of incidents, they’ve given the Russians ample warning of any intended Israeli air-incursion.
The strong implication, here, then, is that the lack of notice which would have allowed the Russians to get their plane out of the line of fire, was very much deliberate on the Israeli part. And given the periodic successes of Syrian S-200 systems against Israeli jets in recent months (including at least one instance earlier this year involving an F-16 that the Israelis have been forced to admit occurred), it is perhaps not hard to see why.
It is unclear at this stage just what the French frigate also in the area was firing at; or whether it was operating in co-ordination with the IDF.
In any case, the Syrians proceeded to do exactly what one would expect – and, for that matter, what they are completely entitled to do: they attempted to defend their airspace and their nation from the Israeli sortie, by firing back.
This evidently included the use of an S-200 system – a comparatively antiquated Soviet-made surface-to-air missile first designed in the 1960s, and supplied to Syria by the USSR from the 1980s, with sporadic modernization and maintenance occurring with Russian assistance over the last three years.
Now, *in theory*, the IFF (Identify Friend-or-Foe) tagging system would have made it less likely for the IL-20 to be hit by an S-200, not least due to the Russian/Soviet manufacture of both pieces of hardware. But “theory” is a fine work of fiction when it comes to actual battlefield conditions; and evidently this has not worked out in practice – perhaps due to the IFF system aboard the IL-20 being turned off (it is, after all, a reconnaissance plane), or maybe due to incomplete informational sharing between Russian and Syrian forces.
It’s also probably worth noting that the S-200 has a rather notoriously ‘spotty’ record anyway in this department – with a Ukranian S-200 system in 2001 having managed the supposedly ‘impossible’ feat of taking down a Soviet-made TU-154M civilian airliner 250km away from the S-200’s designated target during the course of military exercises, as a result of the missile autonomously attaining a new target lock upon the airliner once it lost its original target, despite (according to the Ukranian Defence Ministry, at any rate) an IFF system and on-board self-destruct which should have prevented this from happening.
It is certainly possible that something like this has occurred with regard to the downed IL-20. Namely, that an S-200 either inadvertently locked onto the IL-20 once it was no longer under human targeting control; or alternatively, that the S-200 was initially locked on an Israeli F-16, and upon losing that target due to Israeli countermeasures or evasive maneuvers, instead re-acquired a new target in the form of the IL-20 rather than simply self-destructing. However it transpired, it is a tragedy. And, worse than that, an eminently *avoidable* one.
Rendered all the more lamentable by the fact that the Russian crew were in Syria to assist in the eradication of dangerous extremists – while the Israelis who ultimately spelled their doom were over Syrian airspace in order to *help* those self-same extremists through strikes against their opponents. We used to ‘joke’ that it was not accurate to suggest ISIS and Al-Nusra lacked an airforce – as they had the IDF. This does not seem something to laugh about, now. Anyway, having dissected in a limited way the likely course of events on Monday evening, this now capaciously informs the likely solutions going forward and from the Russian perspective. It would seem that there were two significant contributory factors here: i) the Israeli ‘bad-faith’ abrogation of the proper protocols for communication between themselves and the Russian Military, in order to attain a deliberate advantage for carrying out their attack; and ii) the regrettable features of outmoded air-defence hardware which ultimately lead to the shoot-down.
The solution to the second issue is rather straightforward: Russia had earlier proposed selling S-400 systems to Syria – a move which wound up effectively ‘veto’d’ by Israel stating in no uncertain terms that they would carry out airstrikes against any such systems before they had been fully installed, regardless of whether they were still Russian crewed at that point. Given Israeli airstrikes are presently causing Russian casualties anyway; as well as the fact that the Russians have already had their own advanced SAM systems for *Russian* defence set up in Syria for some time now, in the present situation of Israeli diplomatic weakness created by Monday’s events, now is the ideal time to engage in such technology-transfer directly to Syria with an explicit view to ensuring that Monday’s events do not recur thanks to half-century old hardware malfunctioning.
The first issue is much more complex, as I would be rather surprised if Russia genuinely wanted to seriously contemplate abandoning its significantly close relationship with Israel – although it may potentially be convinced to ‘downgrade’ it somewhat, assuming that we do not see a repeat of what happened following Turkey’s downing of a Russian military aircraft in 2015 (ironically, a seeming catalyst for the two countries beginning to work more closely together than ever before). Whether Russia chooses to remain on ‘friendly’ ‘terms with Israel in a militaristic sense or not, the plain reality is that the Israelis have demonstrated that they cannot and should not be trusted to behave in an up-front manner when it comes to the communication and co-ordination protocols essential to allowing them to continue to operate with relative impunity above Syrian airspace.
Russia should therefore suspend this facility they have provided to the Israelis forthwith – and openly state that future instances of Israeli military aircraft turning up unannounced above Syria will simply be treated as hostile, and dealt with accordingly. After all, from the perspective of that IL-20 crew, what else characterizes the Israeli conduct than this designation? Certainly not the actions of something approaching a ‘trusted’ ally! The net effect of this would be to impose a ‘no-fly zone’ of sorts over Syria – thus allowing operational freedom for Russian and Syrian air assets, and denying precious, vital air-cover to the extremist forces which theoretically everybody agrees need to be wiped out.
I am aware, of course, that a Russia-provided no-fly zone in this way would form an ironic (and unquestionably improved!) ‘echo’ of the NATO no-fly zone imposed upon Libya during the ouster of Gaddafi, as well as the no-fly zone which former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was seeking to have imposed upon Syria not so long ago. But that is the case with ‘mirror images’ – everything in them is ‘the other way around’; and so, in this instance, it would be to the welcome relief of the host-nation and positive contribution to a safe outcome to a conflict. Not, as ultimately resulted from the NATO intervention in Libya, or would unquestionably have occurred had Clinton gotten her way, a neo-imperialist ploy to ably assist ISIS et co.
The coming days will, no doubt, demonstrate that Putin and those working for him in Russia’s foreign and defensive ministries, are both more creative and more perspicacious than I in these matters. I shall await with great interest their ultimate decision as to the appropriate response here. But it seems plainly apparent to me that the hitherto-current approach – of Russia attempting to treat Israel as a potential friend and even ally, whether geopolitically, or in the specific conflict against extremist forces in the Middle-East – has demonstrably not ‘delivered the goods’; and needs to be reviewed with the goal of providing greater assistance and credence to those forces such as the Iranian, Syrian, and Hezbollah military arms *actually* doing much of the fighting – not coincidentally, the exact same forces which Israel seems year in and year out most hell-bent on annihilating where possible.
Indeed, some might say that unless and until the Israelis can demonstrate a genuine commitment to attacking rather than assisting the *real* adversary in Syria – that they should perhaps be treated, in exactly that light, as part and parcel with them, and shunned in a similar manner.