Tel Aviv Yet to Recover From ‘Strategic Blunder’ of Downed Il-20

This week, amid media reports about the Israeli Air Force training to destroy the Russian-made S-300 air defense systems recently delivered to Syria, outgoing IDF chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot vowed that Tel Aviv would continue to counter alleged Iranian efforts to ‘gain a foothold’ in the Arab Republic.

The Israeli public still isn’t aware of the extent to which Israeli security interests have been compromised by the September 17 destruction of a Russian reconnaissance plane by Syrian air defenses attempting to repulse to an Israeli airstrike, Haaretz defence contributor Amos Harel wrote.

According to the analyst, while Israel isn’t facing the immediate danger of war, “there is also a gap between the public’s awareness and the actual severity of the situation” in the region.

“Israel is still deeply mired in a complicated strategic situation: The downing of the Ilyushin plane by a Syrian defence system on September 17 infuriated the Russians, changed their conduct and reduced the IAF’s freedom of activity in the skies of Syria,” Harel suggested.

Noting that a sense of calm now reins on Israel’s tumultuous border with the Gaza Strip, where a shaky ceasefire has been declared between Israel and Hamas, Harel expressed his concerns about Tel Aviv’s ‘hands being tied’ by Russia on its “northern front” with Syria.

“If previous attacks against Iranian arms convoys and bases in Syria were approved almost routinely, now any such activity – and even the Israeli leadership has already hinted that several such attacks have nevertheless been carried out – is accompanied by a great degree of uncertainty. Russia is turning a cold shoulder to Israel,” the analyst lamented, pointing to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s apparent refusal to meet with now ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, and IAF chief Amikam Norkin’s “difficult experience” in Moscow in September.

Harel’s analysis was the second time in a week the defence analyst has mentioned Russia’s role in hampering the freedom of Israeli military operations in Syria. Last week, the analyst wrote that Russia had “made it clear to Israel in many ways that the status quo ante is gone” through the diplomatic and military steps taken by Moscow in Syria since the Il-20’s destruction.

Russia delivered three battalion sets of S-300 air defense systems to Syria last month after Syrian air defences accidentally shot down a military Il-20 reconnaissance plane over Syria in September with 15 Russian airmen onboard. A Syrian S-200 destroyed the Russian plane while attempting to repulse an Israeli air attack. The Russian military accused Israel of recklessly using the Il-20 as a ‘shield’, and of providing insufficient warning for the aircraft to make it to safety.

In addition to the S-300s, the Russian military has provided Syria with its target ID system, and assistance in the radio-electronic suppression of the satnav, airborne radar, and comms systems of aircraft attempting to hit Syrian troops or government targets. Russian air defense troops are currently on the ground in areas of Syria where the S-300s are deployed training of their Syrian counterparts. The training mission is expected to wrap up in December.

Israel has attacked targets in Syrian territory some 200 times over the last two years, but has not been confirmed to have done so since the Il-20 incident. Tel Aviv justified its attacks by alleging that Iran has been trying to turn the Arab Republic into a forward base for Iranian operations against Israel. Iran has denied the presence of combat forces in Syria, but does have an advisory capacity in the country to assist the Syrian Army in its fight against terrorism, and maintains political and military contacts with Lebanese group Hezbollah, which has also played an active combat role in Syria against Daesh* and other extremists.

Earlier this week, a vetting committee approved Maj. Gen. Avi Kochavi as Israel’s new army chief of staff. The appointment was proposed by Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman shortly before his resignation last week following a conflict with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s strategy toward Gaza and Hamas. Netanyahu has taken up Lieberman’s portfolio as defence minister. Outgoing chief of staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot vowed that the Israeli military would continue to counter alleged Iranian efforts to take root in Syria and create a missile delivery route to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

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