MOSCOW >> Russia announced today it will supply Syria’s government with sophisticated S-300 air defense systems after last week’s downing of a Russian plane by Syria forces responding to an Israeli air strike, a friendly fire incident that stoked regional tensions.
The Russian Il-20 military reconnaissance aircraft was downed by Syrian air defenses that mistook it for an Israeli aircraft, killing all 15 people on board. Russia laid the blame on Israel, saying Israeli fighter jets had pushed the plane into Syria’s line of fire.
While President Vladimir Putin initially struck a reconciliatory note, blaming the downing on a “chain of tragic, fatal circumstances,” the Russian military reaffirmed its accusations against Israel on Sunday.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that the S-300 missile defense systems will be delivered to Damascus within two weeks. Earlier in the war, Russia suspended a supply of S-300s, which Israel feared Syria could use against it.
Shoigu went on television to say that Russia is now going to go ahead with the shipment because “the situation has changed, and it’s not our fault.”
Shortly after his statement, Putin got a call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and told him that the Russian move was “aimed primarily at fending off any potential threat to the lives of Russian servicemen,” according to a readout of the call issued by the Kremlin.
Shoigu also announced that Russia would equip Syrian air defenses with a new automated control system to enhance its efficiency and help identify Russian aircraft. He said the Russian military will start using electronic countermeasures to jam any aircraft that would try to launch attacks off Syria’s coast like the Israeli strike that resulted in the Russian plane’s downing.
“We are convinced that these measures will calm down some hotheads and keep them from careless actions which pose a threat to our troops,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from Israel on the decision to supply the missile defenses.
U.S. National security adviser John Bolton said today that delivery of the Russian S-300 would be a “significant escalation” in already high tensions in the region, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would raise the matter this week with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. General Assembly.
“We think introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians and something that we hope, if these press reports are accurate, they would reconsider,” Bolton said.
International and regional powers backing various sides in Syria’s civil war have been carrying out strikes for years, often using special hotlines to prevent aerial confrontations.
Israel said its warplanes were targeting a Syrian facility involved in arms shipments to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. Israel has launched at least 200 strikes at Iranian and Hezbollah facilities in Syria over the past years, and has maintained a hotline with the Russian military to prevent any collisions.
Shoigu said that the Israeli military warned Russia about last week’s strike just one minute before launching it and claimed it was being conducted in Syria’s north. Instead, the Israeli jets targeted the western province of Latakia, putting the Russian warplane in the line of fire.
Russia launched its campaign in Syria to support President Bashar Assad in 2015, eventually turning the tide of war in favor of Syrian government forces. Moscow has tried to maintain good relations with Iran, which is also allied with the Syrian government, and Israel, which is wary of Iran’s growing influence in Syria.
Assad’s office said the Syrian leader received a call from Putin today and that the two discussed the latest developments, including the downing of the plane and the S-300 delivery. The statement said Assad expressed his condolences for the deaths of the Russian airmen.
Russian officials said Syria’s Soviet-made S-200 systems, one of which downed the Russian plane, weren’t sophisticated enough to identify the Russian aircraft as a friendly one.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russian news agencies that supplying the S-300 to Syria is Russia’s “own right” and expressed confidence that this would not hurt ties with Israel.
The downing of the plane came just hours after Russia announced it had reached a deal with Turkey to avert a Russian-backed Syrian government offensive against the northwestern province of Idlib, one of the last areas still in rebel hands.
Idlib, controlled by a mix of radical groups and Turkey-backed armed opposition, overlooks the Syrian coast, where Russian military and air bases are located. The bases have reportedly come under rebel fire.
Syrian state TV said insurgents shelled a government-controlled crossing east of Idlib today that was reportedly prepared to allow civilians to leave the province.
Concerns are rising in Idlib over the details of the deal and how it will be implemented. The province is home to some 3 million Syrians, half of them displaced by violence in other parts of the country.
Hard-line armed groups have rejected the deal, saying it aims to strip the opposition of weapons and is a victory for Assad’s government. On Sunday, tribal leaders and prominent local figures meeting in Idlib said they distrusted Russian mediation, citing Russia’s previous cease-fire violations. The conference called on armed groups not to leave the front lines in Syria or hand over their weapons.