Liberman: Media Is Making Too Much of Russian Plane Incident

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

As Russia prepared to release its own report on the incident last week, in which one of its reconnaissance planes was downed by a Syrian missile, killing 15 Russian soldiers, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that nothing would change in Israel’s policies regarding Syria. Speaking to Reshet Bet, Liberman said that “we have made it clear that we will not allow Syria to be turned into a forward base for Iran to operate against Israel. We will continue to act to prevent this, in whatever we can and need to. And we do not intend to conduct a public debate with Russia over this in the media.”

Last week, Israeli Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin traveled to Moscow to present Israel’s assessment of the incident, in which a Syrian missile, apparently fired by Syrian forces in response to an IDF attack on an Iranian base in the Latakia region, hit the Russian jet. A senior IDF source quoted by Ha’aretz said that Israel had presented “operational and intelligence details regarding Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, and the information the IDF possessed about depots in Latakia that led to Israel’s attack.” A report in Lebanese media Friday said that Russia had rejected the Israeli report as being “incomplete.” Neither Russia nor Israel had any comment on that report.

According to Russia’s Tass News Agency, a Russian Ilyushin Il-20 military reconnaissance plane “disappeared” last Monday night during an attack by four Israeli F-16 planes on Syrian targets in Latakia, where Russia has a military presence. In a rare statement, the IDF said that it had targeted the Syrian base, “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 said in a statement.

The Russian plane was, according to both Israel and Russia, hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire. According to an initial Russian statement, the Israeli planes had “used the Russian airplane as a cover,” endangering the Russian plane and placing it “in the line of fire coming from Syrian air defense systems.” The IDF said in its statement that this was not the case, and that “when the Syrian army launched the missiles that hit the Russian plane, (Israeli) jets were already within Israeli airspace.” A report Wednesday night said that the Syrian soldiers who had been involved in firing on the Russian plane were arrested and questioned by Syrian military police. Later, Russian President Vladimir Putin absolved Israel of responsibility for the strike, saying that “it looks most likely in this case that it was a chain of tragic chance events, because an Israeli aircraft did not shoot down our aircraft. But, without any doubt we need to seriously get the bottom of what happened.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement Saturday that it would release on Sunday a “minute-by-minute timeline of the tragedy” that “will be given with a presentation of objective data from the radars’ data handling system about the air situation in Syria on September 17 and actions of Israel’s air force in the area of the crash.”

In his comments Sunday, Liberman said that in the incident “Israel acted as it always does in these circumstances, and will continue to act in this manner in the future. This is not a matter of freely choosing to act in this manner. We have no choice. We see [Iran’s presence in Syria] as a survival issue for Israel. Responsibility for this issue is squarely on the shoulders of Bashar Assad’s army. This is not a matter for an investigation to uncover, but a matter of the facts.”

Liberman added the he believed that the media was making more of the incident that necessary. “We are involved in extensive and ongoing dialog” with Russia, he said. “The facts are clear, and I believe that things will return to their previous state. We believe that there has been an exaggeration, both in the media coverage and the rhetoric. They do not reflect the level of discussions we have had over the past few days.”

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