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Some Russian commentators are holding Putin and Assad responsible for plane downing

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On Sept. 17, Syrian S-200 battery accidentally shot down a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 (IL-20) reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 Russian service members onboard. Moscow holds Israel responsible, claiming that Israel put the Russian aircraft in a line of fire even if ultimately these events were a “series of tragic mistakes,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to note. Israel holds the Assad regime responsible. According to an IDF statement, Syrian anti-aircraft batteries “fired indiscriminately and from what we understand did not bother to ensure no Russian planes were in the air.”

Russian-Syrian cooperation on a tactical level was always wrought with operational problems, and it’s likely that the two sides had difficulties de-conflicting in this particular incident. Nor is it surprising that to save face, the Russian government blamed someone else for its own incompetence, and that of its ally.

But what do the Russian people think? Russian press is largely government controlled and the Kremlin view dominates, but other views find their way in. A number of such commentators hold the Russian and Assad’s government responsible, rather than Israel, and raise multiple questions about Russia’s involvement in Syria.

Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Russia, published a brief comment from Russian reserve colonel, participant in Afghan and Chechen wars, and former head of Russian ground forces Rustem Klupov. “[T]he Israeli military in this particular case acted very professionally. Everyone should understand that the main problem here is not in Israel or the actions of the Syrian military,” he said. In his view guilt “almost entirely” falls on those in the Russian military whose job it was to communicate with the Syrian air defense.  

Another expert commented for Novaya Gazeta, “ [I]f the Russian military command group in Syria learned about the approaching of Israeli Air Force planes from the Israelis themselves, and also, as [Russian Defense Ministry spokesman] Konashenkov claims, ‘one minute before the strike’ – then this indicates the uselessness of the radio electronic reconnaissance system.

Putin critic and former Russian parliamentarian Gennady Gudkov asked in liberal Echo Moskvy, “How could the Syrian air defense, upon seeing on their radars a large IL-20 coming to a low speed landing, release the S-200 on a small Israeli Air Force fighter, who was in same air space sector?! Are there brainless ‘dummies’ sitting behind the radars?”

“We always blame someone else. Anyone but us,” observed commentator Anton Orekh in Echo Moskvy, and continued sarcastically,“ ‘Boeing’ was hit by Ukraine, the British themselves poisoned the Skripals, White Helmets poured chlorine on the Syrian insurgents, sanctions were imposed by Russophobes, doping was planted by other Russophobes…With whom have we not yet quarreled? Who else is not yet to blame for all our troubles? Israel – it’s next in line.”

Gudkov and Orekh raise many additional questions. For instance, to Orekh, it’s unclear why would Moscow claim that an Israeli F-16, which is three times as fast as an IL-20, would hide behind such a slow-moving aircraft.

But beyond the details of this incident, more fundamentally, both wonder why Russian soldiers continue to die in Syria, after the Russian government has announced in the last several years, with much fanfare, at least two formal “withdrawals” from Syria, upon claiming “victory.”

Neither the Russian nor Israeli governments seek a serious bilateral crisis and both sides are already working on easing tensions — at least for now. But some in Russia continue to publicly raise questions about their country’s involvement in Syria. Moreover the downing of the IL-20 highlighted operational difficulties between the Russian and Syrian militaries, which suggests that this incident may not be the last.

Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

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