Proving just how dangerous the situation remains in Syria—where the U.S., Russia, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, France and other nations are all maintaining military operations amid a civil war that has dragged on for nearly seven years—the Kremlin on Tuesday is blaming Israel after the Syrian military reportedly downed a Russian military aircraft by mistake, killing all 15 airmen on board.
According to Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov, the Russian transport plane was shot down Monday night, local time, as Israel F-16’s attempted to use it as cover while carrying out a bombing mission against targets in the Latakia region of western Syria near the Meditarranean coast.
“By using the Russian plane as cover the Israeli air pilots made it vulnerable to Syrian air defense fire. As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of the F-16, was downed by a missile launched with the S-200 system,” Konashenkov told reporters.
The incident, according to Agence France-Presse, “was the worst case of friendly fire between the two allies since Russia’s game-changing military intervention in September 2015.”
Arguing that the military manuevers leading up to their plane being shot down were intentional, Konashenkov said the Israelis “deliberately staged this provocation” and accused Israel of creating a dangerous situation for both aircraft and sea vessels operating in that area.
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Israeli military officials initially refused to comment on airstrikes being carried out in Latakia, though multiple news outlets, including Israeli newspapers, reported the area—which remains under the control of President Bashar al-Assad—was under heavy bombardment.
On Tuesday, however, Israeli army spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis admitted the military had carried out strikes against Syrian targets. In a statement, Manelis said that Israel “expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed tonight due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” but added that Israel holds the Assad regime—and its Lebanese allies—fully responsible for the incident.
Further complicating the situation, as AFP notes, Moscow had earlier claimed missiles were fired from a French frigate positioned in the same area of the Mediterranean, though the French military denied any involvement.
As the war in Syria rages on, Turkey and Russia announced on Monday a joint agreement that will at least forestall an expected large-scale on Syria’s Idlib province, now the last area controlled by rebel military factions facing off against the Syrian government. According to AntiWar.com:
The deal will see a 15-25 km wide buffer zone established between government and rebel territory, inside Idlib Province. The rebels are to leave this area, which will be jointly patrolled by Turkey and Russia, and are to withdraw all heavy weapons from the area.
This deal aims to both push the rebels further back toward the Turkish border, and to preclude a military confrontation with Turkey itself, as they’ve been reinforcing their own positions in Idlib in recent days.