- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Just 24 hours after a last-minute deal stopped a looming government assault on the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib, the inadvertent downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane over the Mediterranean Sea provided a stark illustration of how difficult it will be to forge a lasting peace deal, as Russia and Israel traded blame for the incident and the deaths of all 15 crew members on board.

The Russian I1-20 reconnaissance plane was flying just off the coast of Syria’s northwestern Latakia province late Monday when Israel sent four jets to bomb a nearby Syrian weapons facility. Jerusalem argues that the weapons systems inside the complex would have ultimately been transferred to the terrorist group Hezbollah, a key Israeli enemy and ally of Iran. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces launched anti-aircraft missiles to take out the Israeli fighters but apparently struck the Russian plane instead, downing it into the sea and killing everyone on board.

The two nations immediately traded blame, sparking a fresh round of tensions inside Syria. Russia has provided critical military support to Mr. Assad in the civil war, and Israel has also repeatedly intervened in Syria to limit the scope and influence of Iran and its proxies inside Syria.

“The Israeli pilots were using the Russian aircraft as a shield and pushed it into the line of fire of the Syrian defense,” said Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov in a statement.

Russia and Israel use a hotline in order to communicate about strikes in Syria and keep their forces from accidentally hitting each other. Israeli officials said that line had been used ahead of Monday’s strikes.

In its own statement, the Israel Defense Forces blamed Mr. Assad and expressed “sorrow” for the Russians killed in the 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,” the IDF tweeted. “These weapons were meant to attack Israel, and posed an intolerable threat against it.”

The incident comes at a time all sides had been clinging to a peace agreement reached Monday to head off an all-out assault on the rebel enclave in Idlib and protect tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside the rebel enclave. While the downed plane doesn’t undermine that deal, it shines a spotlight on the complex web of alliances and interests at play in Syria, which has become a proxy battlefield for the U.S., Turkey and Russia, Israel and its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, and a host of other actors.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed “sorrow” for the incident, and said the deaths of the 15 crewmen underscore the need to bring the Syrian conflict to a peaceful resolution.

Russian President Vladimir Putin struck a more restrained note Tuesday, saying the incident was the result of a “chain of tragic circumstances.” He also said that Russia will increase security for its troops inside Syria.

Mr. Putin also spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by phone Tuesday and the two men agreed on the need for continued “security coordination,” an Israeli government statement said.

Less than a day earlier, Mr. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged from a meeting in Sochi to announce they’d reached a deal to spare the city of Idlib, which had been bracing for an all-out assault from Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces. The U.S. and its allies also feared that Mr. Assad might employ chemical weapons in that attack, a step he’s taken at least twice before.

The Putin-Erdogan deal called for a demilitarized zone up to 12 miles deep in Idlib, and the removal of all heavy artillery from the area. Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan also said that all “hard-line militants” — such as Islamic State fighters and al Qaeda extremists — would be removed from the area. It’s expected that the militants could still face more surgical military operations from both Russian and Turkish forces.

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