One of the darkest fears about the conflict in Syria, particularly since Russia began its full-fledged military intervention in 2015, was that through miscommunication or overreaction, the increasing number of foreign militaries operating in the country could come into direct conflict with each other, sparking a wider, more dangerous war. (More dangerous, that is, for countries other than Syria. For Syrians, it’s been an unmitigated hell for seven years.) It’s either relieving or profoundly depressing to note that as this dangerous scenario now happens with some regularity, the various actors around Syria simply shrug and go on with their grim business.
The latest incident took place Monday when Syrian anti-aircraft missiles shot down a Russian warplane off the coast near the city of Latakia, where Russia has an air base, killing 15 personnel on board. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Russia blamed not its Syrian allies but the Israelis. According to the Russian defense ministry, Israeli jets in the area put the Russian Il-20 in the path of Syrian air defense systems. In a Twitter statement, the Israel Defense Forces acknowledged carrying out an airstrike against a “facility of the Syrian Armed Forces” but said its jets were back in Israeli airspace by the time the Russian plane was fired upon. The IDF said it held the Assad regime, along with Iran and Hezbollah, responsible for the incident.
Either way, the diplomatic spat ended quickly. After a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Putin blamed the incident on a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”
Russia and Israel certainly aren’t allies when it comes to Syria. Russia, along with Iran, is the main backer of the Assad regime, while Israel has been waging a quiet war against Iranian proxies in Syria. Israel has increased those airstrikes this year, including Saturday’s attack on an Iranian arms shipment at the Damascus airport. Russia has generally not objected to these strikes and receives warning of them via a deconfliction system (though there have been some close calls involving Israeli strikes on facilities where Russian personnel are present).
Netanyahu and Putin have had a number of recent high-profile meetings, including one in July after which the Israeli leader said that Russia had agreed to keep Iranian forces away from Israel in exchange for Israel accepting Assad’s continued rule. A few days later, Israeli concerns appear to have been a major topic at the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. Putin would like to be the leader that negotiates a peaceful end-state in Syria—on his terms, naturally—and knows that he can’t do that unless the Israelis feel relatively secure, a tall order given that leaving Iranian-backed Assad in power will likely be part of any final deal.
All of this is to say that even if the Russians are fed up with Israel conducting airstrikes near them and blame the Israelis for the killing of 15 troops on Monday, there’s little political incentive for Putin to make a big deal about it.
This is becoming something of a pattern after Russians are killed not by rebels or terrorists but by other countries’ militaries. The most obvious comparison for this incident is the 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish F-16s in 2015.
While this was a major diplomatic incident at the time, Russian-Turkish relations have improved dramatically since then, as both countries’ relations with Europe and the United States have declined. Earlier on Monday, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a potentially major deal to forestall a disastrous military offensive in Idlib.
There was also this year’s incident in February, when the U.S. launched an airstrike against pro-Assad forces believed to be attacking Kurdish positions, killing a number of Russians—estimates range from “dozens” to about 300—embedded in their ranks. Even as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted about killing “a couple hundred Russians” in his confirmation hearings, Russian statements on the incidents have downplayed the attack, stressing that the men killed were “volunteers” rather than Russian army personnel.
Russia is in a very strange position in Syria. It’s arguably the key outside actor in the conflict and, more impressively, has decent relationships, or at least working relationships, with most of the other key players, many of whom are in open conflict with each other: the Assad regime, the Saudis and the Gulf states, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, the United States. (That last one’s a little more complicated.)
Because of these delicate relationships, Russia does not appear to be in a position to respond or even voice major objections when one of those actors kills its troops, accidentally or in some cases deliberately. This can’t be an encouraging message for the troops and “volunteers” in Syria who Putin is putting in harm’s way.