Syria's crowded battlespace can lead to accidental clashes that have serious international ramifications. In this case, a fragile Russian-Israeli understanding on Syria did not prevent significant loss of life, and there is a high chance that other incidents will amplify problems in the future.
During Israeli airstrikes on the Syrian coast on Sept. 17, a Russian IL-20 surveillance plane with 15 crew members on board was accidentally shot down by a Syrian surface-to-air missile battery that was responding to the attack. Russia, however, has blamed Israel for the incident, alleging that Israel provided Russia with only one minute of advanced warning before the attack and that the Israeli aircraft deliberately used the IL-20 as cover during their approach, thus making it vulnerable to Syrian air defense counterfire.
Moscow has stated that it reserves the right to respond to the incident. Israel has acknowledged it was behind the strike on Syrian bases, but it has laid the blame for the IL-20 incident squarely on the Syrians, stating that its aircraft were already back over Israeli airspace when the Russian aircraft was shot down.
The Russians and Israelis have long had an understanding on Syria that allowed Israel to continue strikes in the country without Russian interference; the two countries also deconflict their operations through a communications hotline. However, the constant Israeli strikes in Syria were never a risk-free proposition. And now, the two countries are confronting the first serious incident that could compromise their relationship on the Syrian battlefield.
Why It Matters
Russia's decision to hold Israel accountable for the IL-20 incident could mean Russia will take retaliatory measures against Israeli aircraft operating over Syria. Russia is also likely to provide enhanced assistance to the Syrian air defense system — either through additional equipment transfers or greater intelligence sharing and guidance — to make it more effective against Israeli attacks.
A serious deterioration of the Russia-Israel relationship is still unlikely, but if the dynamic continues to sour, it could lead to direct clashes between the two countries over Syria, as Israel remains determined to keep striking Iranian and Hezbollah positions.
The downing of the IL-20 is reminder of how crowded the battlespace in Syria is; numerous countries are operating in the country and there is a high chance that mistakes and miscommunication could escalate conflict. This time, a Russian aircraft was shot down, but other potential clashes could involve Syrian air defense forces firing on a U.S. coalition aircraft (the United States largely operates very similar aircraft to the Israeli air force) or even a civilian airliner. After all, the S-200 system that the Russians claimed shot down their aircraft accidentally brought down a Russian Siberian Airlines flight over the Black Sea in October 2001.