Photo Credit: Yissachar Ruas / TPS
F-16 'Sufa' Israeli warplane

A weapons depot in Latakia appears to have been erased in satellite images released Wednesday of the site by ImageSat International (ISI), seen in images from 2017 and on September 18, 2018, after an Israel Air Force air strike late Monday. During Syrian aerial defense missile action responding to the air strike, a Russian military reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syria. All 15 crew members aboard the aircraft were killed.

The initial response by the Russian Defense Ministry was to blame Israel, saying Israeli warplanes had used the Russian aircraft as cover for its air strike, but within hours President Vladmir Putin countered the claim, telling media the incident was a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances.”

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin in a phone call that the arms warehouse that was targeted was holding “accurate and lethal weapons” that were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah that were to be used to attack Israel and which pose an “intolerable threat” against the Jewish state. Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that Israel will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in Syria for that reason.

Netanyahu offered to send Israel Air Force Commander Major-General Amiram Norkin to Moscow to personally present the findings of Israel’s investigation into the incident; a proposal that was accepted by Moscow and immediately put into action. On Thursday morning, a top-level Israeli military delegation is scheduled to be in Moscow to present its findings on the incident. Norkin will be joined by the Head of the International Cooperation Unit, Brig. Gen. Erez Maisel, as well as additional officers of the Intelligence Directorate, the IAF and the Operations Directorate.

“The IDF delegation led by the Commander of the IAF, Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, will present the situation report of the event regarding all aspects, including the pre-mission information and the findings of the IDF inquiry regarding the event,” the IDF said in a statement. “In addition, they will present the continuous Iranian attempts to transfer strategic weapons to the Hezbollah terror organization and to establish an Iranian military presence in Syria.”

“Israel expresses sorrow for the death of the aircrew members of the Russian plane that was downed … due to Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Israel holds the Assad regime, whose military shot down the Russian plane, fully responsible for this incident,” the statement continued. “Israel also holds Iran and the Hezbollah terror organization accountable for this unfortunate incident.

“Overnight, IDF fighter jets targeted a facility of the Syrian Armed Forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it.

“The IDF and the Russian army have a deconfliction system, which was agreed upon by the states’ leaders, and has proven itself many times over recent years. This system was in use tonight as well.”

According to the IDF, an initial inquiry of the incident suggests:
1. Extensive and inaccurate Syrian anti-aircraft (Surface to Air missile) fire caused the Russian plane to be hit and downed.
2. When the Syrian Army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, IAF jets were already within Israeli airspace.
3. During the strike against the target in Latakia, the Russian plane that was then hit was not within the area of the operation.
4. The Syrian anti-air batteries fired indiscriminately and from what we understand, did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air.

Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian Government to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.

Meanwhile, a number of Syrian Arab Army soldiers who were involved in the downing of the Russian aircraft were arrested and interrogated by Russian military police together with Syrian authorities, according to Syrian media and local sources.

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.