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By John Helmer, Moscow

“When people die, especially in such unfortunate circumstances,” President Vladimir Putin said at a Kremlin press conference  on Tuesday afternoon, “it is always a tragedy”. The president was responding to the destruction of a Russian reconnaissance aircraft and the deaths of fifteen crew members during an Israeli Air Force attack on Syria on Monday evening. The Israeli operation was coordinated with British and French commands to spoof, confuse and overwhelm Russian and Syrian air defences.

“It is always a tragedy,” Putin went on – “a tragedy for all of us, for the nation and for the families of our people who lost their lives… In this case, it is more a chain of tragic circumstances because an Israeli fighter did not down our aircraft. It goes without saying that we must get to the bottom of this. Our attitude towards this tragedy is set forth in a statement by our Defence Ministry, and has been fully coordinated with me. As for reciprocal action, this will be primarily aimed at ensuring additional security for our military and our facilities in the Syrian Arab Republic. These steps will be seen by everyone.”

What will be seen by everyone has already been registered. According to Turkey, Putin has conceded Turkish military occupation of the Idlib governorate of northwest Syria, allowing Turkish Army  reinforcements from the west and north,  but preventing Syrian Army operations in defence of Syrian territory. According to Israel, Putin has accepted the Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) air superiority over central as well as southern Syria and a free-fire zone for any target in Syria which Israel regards as hostile, including Russian military operations.  According to the Russian military command, Putin has forfeited his defence of Russian forces in Syria to the combination of Israel, France and the UK, which coordinated the combat against Syria on Monday evening.

Putin began on Monday in Sochi with the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/

By the early evening of Monday, Putin called  his Turkish pact a “Memorandum of Understanding on Stabilization of the Situation in Idlib’s De-escalation Zone”.  This allows Turkey open western and northern borders through which to reinforce its occupation of the province. Turkish forces and the Turkish campaign to take over deployment, armament and control of opposition Arab groups in Idlib have been accepted by Putin in this formula: “Russia and Turkey have reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorism in Syria in all its forms and guises.”

MAP OF TURKISH OCCUPATION OF IDLIB, AUGUST 27, 2018


Source: IRIN, https://www.irinnews.org/

A southern line of restriction, to be patrolled by lightly armed Russian military police, will protect  the Turks and Turkish-supported forces from operations by the Syrian Army to recover their sovereignty of the province.  

The partition line for Idlib, Putin announced, will be “a demilitarised area 15–20 km deep along the contact line between the armed opposition and [Syrian] government troops, with radical militants to be withdrawn from the area, including al-Nusra. Also by October 10, based on the Turkish President’s proposal, to secure the withdrawal of heavy military equipment, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortars of all opposition groups.”  

Southbound, the M5 highway between Aleppo and Hama, and westbound, the M4 route from Aleppo to Latakia, Putin announced, would be reopened by the end of this year “at the suggestion of the Turkish side”.

Putin conceded these terms have not been agreed with the Syrian government in Damascus. That might come later, Putin claimed.  “This approach is generally supported by the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic. We will soon hold additional consultations with the Syrian government.” So far there has been silence from the Syrian Government.

Putin and Erdogan wound up their talks late on Monday afternoon. After dark, the IDF, the French Navy and the British air command in Cyprus began their operation against Latakia.

RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY MAP OF THE LATAKIA ATTACK ON SEPTEMBER 17, 2018


CLICK ON MAP TO ENLARGE
Source: https://sputniknews.com/ The red line shows the flight path of the Russian Ilyushin-20 from take-off at the Khmeimim air base at 2031 until, shortly before landing at base, it was hit by a Syrian missile at 2207. The red X marks the location of the downing at sea. The dotted blue line shows the flight path of  four Israeli F-16s between 2200 and 2210.  The blue vessel is the French Navy frigate Auvergne. The red vessel on the map is the Russian Navy frigate Pitlivy.


Source: BBC. Missing from the Russian map and the BBC translation and commentary are the two British Air Force planes reported in Israel to have taken off from the Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus,  and to have maintained a holding pattern above the flight path of the Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers as they moved into their firing positions.

Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles protect the Khmeimim airbase; their radar and strike ranges are at least 400 kilometres. On Monday evening this meant that Russian air defence crews and the Khmeimim base command tracked the Israeli aircraft from their takeoff positions out into the Mediterranean, and then as they turned north on their attack run. The S-400 crews were also tracking the British aircraft as they took off from Cyprus. When the French frigate Auvergne fired missiles, the S-400 crews at Khmeimim tracked their flight paths. Subsequent Russian press reports and Defence Ministry releases say the timing of the IDF firing at Latakia, the French missile launches, and the destruction of the Il-20 occurred within seconds of one another.  

As the four Israeli F-16s approached Latakia, the Russians could have fired in defence except that their orders from Moscow are not to lock and fire on the IDF unless Russian forces are directly under threat. That was precisely the situation for the crew on board the Ilyushin-20, which the S-400 crews were also tracking. But they were required to hold their fire. That is the standing Kremlin order.


The S-400 at Khmeimim airbase. For details of the S-400 system’s capabilities for simultaneous tracking and multiple targeting, as well as range, read this. The targets struck by the IDF on Monday night were all within 50 kilometres of Khmeimim. Israeli reporting noted “the attack near Latakia is especially unusual because the port city is located near a Russian military base, the Khmeimim Air Force base”. 

When Tuesday began in Moscow, Putin did not call his Security Council into emergency session. Four days before, it had met for its weekly routine session; that was on Friday September 14.   There had been time to exchange birthday banter with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who turned 53. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was absent in Berlin, meeting German officials; for assessment of his Idlib strategy, read this.  

At the Security Council meeting there was an “exchange of views”, according to the Kremlin record, “on the situation around Idlib (Syria). They expressed concern over the high concentration of terrorists in this place together with their destabilising activities.” If Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu,  the intelligence chiefs and former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov told Putin their views on strategy towards the Turks in Idlib, and what they proposed for Putin’s next meeting with Erdogan, the Kremlin record has erased it publicly.  

At 19:35 on Tuesday the Kremlin posted this communiqué of Putin’s telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  “Vladimir Putin noted that operations of this nature by the Israeli Air Force are in violation of Syria’s sovereignty. In this particular case, Russian-Israeli agreements on preventing dangerous incidents had not been observed either, and that resulted in the Russian aircraft coming under Syrian air defence fire. The Russian President called on the Israeli side to prevent such incidents in the future.”  The last sentence was the only one the Israelis take seriously. And not very seriously at that.


Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Putin at their last Kremlin meeting, July 11, 2018. For details, click

Israeli officials and military sources told Haaretz:  “The Syrian and Russian air forces and air-defense batteries work together, in joint operation rooms and air-traffic control centers. The Syrians use Russian-made aircraft and missiles. The Ilyushin would have been equipped with IFF (identification, friend or foe) transponders and both militaries will have procedures to prevent ‘friendly fire’ incidents. A Syrian anti-aircraft missile, made in Russia, should not have shot down a friendly Russian aircraft. The incident could have been caused in part by (intentionally) late notification by Israel – but it certainly was a screw-up between the Russian and Syrian allies. The British aircraft in the area seemed to be prepared to keep out of trouble, so why not the Russians?  The speed with which Russia rushed to blame Israel, before a proper operational investigation of Monday night’s events could be held, points to a screw-up of the kind Russia never likes to admit to in public.”

“The Russians know the truth, but in public [they] have to blame someone for their high-profile setback and human tragedy. They can’t blame their Syrian allies. Israel will have to take the rap in public, but if the close relationship between Netanyahu and Putin is anything to go by, they’ll find a way to get over this and Israeli aircraft will again be striking Iranian targets in Syria in the not-too-distant future.”

Two hours before Putin and Netanyahu made their telephone pact about the future, the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Israeli Embassy chargé d’affaires, Karen Cohen-Gat. The words reported in the Russian communiqué of the meeting with Deputy Minister Sergei Vershinin omitted incidents, accidents, tragedy.


Karen Cohen-Gat leaving the Foreign Ministry in Moscow with bodyguard. Source: Getty 

“During the conversation the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation S.V. Vershinin has emphasized that in Moscow [the Foreign Ministry has] regarded as irresponsible and unfriendly the actions of the Air Force of Israel, as a result of which under a strike by the Syrian air defenses the Russian Il-20 plane has been downed, and 15 Russian servicemen have died.  It has been noted that the Russian side will take all necessary measures to stop the threat to life and safety of the Russian military rendering assistance to the Syrian people in the fight against terrorism.”

Five hours earlier, the Russian Defence Ministry statement, which Putin claimed to have been “fully coordinated with me”, was issued at 11 in the morning by Major General Igor Konashenkov (right). He accused the Israelis of spoofing Syrian air defences and creating an ambush for the Russian aircraft. “Israel did not warn the command  of the Russian troops in Syria about the planned operation. We received a notification via hotline less than a minute before the strike, which did not allow the Russian aircraft to be directed to a safe zone.”

Konashenkov went on: “The Israeli jets used the Russian plane as a cover, thus exposing it to Syrian air defence fire. As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of [the Israeli F-16s], was shot down by a missile launched with the S-200 system. We regard these provocative actions by Israel as hostile. As a result of irresponsible actions by the Israeli military 15 Russian military servicemen were killed. This by no means agrees with the spirit of Russian-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right to a proportionate response.”

An hour later, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced: “The responsibility for the downing of the Russian aircraft and the death of its crew lies solely with Israel. .. we reserve the right to take retaliatory steps.”  At the end of the day Shoigu reiterated his message.   “It’s clear to any specialist the strike was delivered using our Ilyushin-20 as cover, because they [the Israelis] thought the Syrian air defence systems would not act in that direction… We have informed today our Israeli colleagues, and I have also informed personally the Israeli Defense Minister [Avigdor Lieberman], that such actions will not be left unanswered by us.”

Shoigu was repeating himself after Putin had been asked at his Kremlin press conference “will this complicate our relations with Israel? One cannot help recalling the recent incident with Turkey. What kind of response measures can be expected from Russia?” Putin’s answer was: “As for your comparison with the downing of our plane by a Turkish fighter, this was a different situation. The Turkish fighter deliberately shot down our aircraft. In this case, it is more a chain of tragic circumstances because an Israeli fighter did not down our aircraft. It goes without saying that we must get to the bottom of this. Our attitude towards this tragedy is set forth in a statement by our Defence Ministry, and has been fully coordinated with me.”  

The last four words misrepresented what had been happening in Moscow. Unlike the last fatal aircraft incident at Khmeimim in March of this year, Putin avoided making public his contact with Shoigu, if there was one. Following the crash of an An-26 Antonov troop transport,  the Kremlin record claimed at the time:  “during a telephone conversation with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu Vladimir Putin received the latest information on the crash of a Russian An-26 military transport aircraft in the Syrian Arab Republic… The head of state expressed his deepest condolences to the families of the victims and to the entire staff of the Defence Ministry on the loss of their comrades.” In that incident, 39 on board were killed, including a major general. The Defence Ministry investigation concluded that wind shear as the aircraft was landing had accidentally caused the crash.   In March Putin publicized his agreement with Shoigu on wind shear; on Tuesday he kept secret his refusal to agree with Shoigu on Israel. 

Putin’s answer yesterday is the only one the Israelis accept. Dismissing the Russian General Staff and Defence Minister in the confidence that Putin controls them, Haaretz editorialized: “In Rush to Blame Israel for Downed Plane Near Latakia, Russia May Be Conducting Face-saving Op… Israel may now have to lay low for a while and let Russian pride recover.”

 

 

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