The destruction of an Il-20M radio-electronic surveillance aircraft, with 15 crew members aboard, in the late evening of September 17 was not the worst tragedy to date of the three-year-long Russian military intervention in Syria; but it has, perhaps, been the most difficult to explain away. It was not a technical fault, like with the crash of an Antonov-26 transport plane on March 6, which claimed 32 lives. Rather, a surface-to-air S-200 missile, fired by Syrian air-defense forces, had brought the plane down. In the morning of September 18, the Russian Ministry of Defense produced the first explanation of this disaster, pitting the blame squarely on the Israeli Air Force, which allegedly used the slow-moving Russian turboprop plane as cover for an airstrike carried out by four F-16 fighters (Kommersant-FM, September 18). It took Israel a few days to disprove this accusation, but it left many awkward questions for Russian command regarding the real responsibility for this case of “friendly fire” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 20). Further complicating this blame game is the conjunction of four setbacks in the execution of the Russian intervention.
The first setback occurred a day prior to the missile hit on the Il-20M, which, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, was performing an intelligence-gathering mission over the rebel-controlled Idlib province (Interfax, September 18). Specifically, a massive offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on this last remaining “de-escalation zone”—into which various rebel groups, including the remnants of al-Qaeda, had retreated—was set to be launched, when it was suddenly called off (Kommersant, September 18; see EDM, September 4, 20). Russian propaganda had launched many virtual salvos against this “seat of terrorism,” and pro-Kremlin commentators took great pains to explain the change of plans (Russiancouncil.ru, September 17). The reason for the awkward back-pedaling was the firm stance of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who met with President Vladimir Putin, in Sochi, after the fruitless trilateral summit in Tehran, and explained in no uncertain terms that Idlib was off limits for the al-Assad regime (Valdaiclub.com, September 20). In Putin’s geopolitical designs, the strategic partnership with Turkey is of greater importance than another “victory” in Syria, which cannot generate much domestic enthusiasm (Republic.ru, September 18; see EDM, September 20).
The second stumbling block affected Russia’s relations with Israel, and Shoigu’s statement about the latter’s full responsibility for the tragedy and the forthcoming “adequate responsive measures” was tough beyond reason (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 18). The remarks triggered an instant wave of “patriotic” and explicitly anti-Israeli hysterics in Russia’s official and social media; Putin had to expend political capital to calm down the aggressive emotions (Carnegie.ru, September 19). General Amikam Norkin, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, presented in Moscow an extensive report on the incident, which left no doubt about the clean execution of the Israeli airstrike. But for many Russians, such technical details are of little relevance (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 19). Shoigu is perfectly aware of this public eagerness to blame Israel, so he persisted with this politically shrewd stance, even if he delivered Putin into a “lose-lose” situation. Putin’s telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was meant to limit the damage (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 19; Kommersant, September 23).
The reluctant reconciliation with Israel has exposed the major shortcomings in Russia’s military support for the al-Assad regime, which amounts to the third obstacle in the execution of the intervention (Moscow Echo, September 19). Russian military advisers were supposed to ensure that the Syrian air-defense system worked in synch with the Russian air campaign; it has transpired, however, that there was no communication between the Syrian missile batteries and the Khmeimim airbase, where the Russian squadron is deployed (Kommersant, September 21). The gross incompetence of Syrian troops was hardly a surprise, but the blunders of Russian military command in ensuring control over the airspace around its main base are difficult to hide (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 20). Perhaps to try to rectify these serious shortcomings in Syria’s air-defense capabilities, Moscow announced on September 24 that it would supply S-300s to Damascus (Haaretz, September 24). Al-Assad’s persistence in blaming Israel for the downing of the Il-20M betrays his irritation with Putin’s decision to cancel the Idlib offensive without any consultation with him (Russiancouncil.ru, September 21). The party that has benefitted most from these quarrels is Iran, which seeks to instigate conflict between Russia and Israel and to increase its control over the al-Assad regime (Rosbalt, September 21).
The most consequential setback, however, was the failure to put pressure on the United States’ rather muddled policy in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov keeps arguing that the main threat to Syria’s territorial integrity comes from the eastern shore of the Euphrates, controlled by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 21). The exercise of US Special Forces at the al-Tanf base in early September has, however, dissuaded Russian forces from any new experiments in this direction (RIA Novosti, September 8). The US threat of new missile strikes in response to al-Assad attacking Idlib was, quite possibly, a major consideration in Putin’s decision to cancel the operation (Rosbalt, September 18). The arrival to the Mediterranean of a US Navy strike group led by the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman added weight to Washington’s deterrence of al-Assad’s aggressive plans and reminded that the Russian navy is only a minor force in this theater (Gazeta.ru, September 19).
The sum total of these developments amounts to a profound undermining of the strategic rationale for the Russian military intervention in Syria. Putin declared it victorious so many times that he cannot possibly admit failure now, but neither can he justify an expansion necessary to reverse the trend of accumulating setbacks and mounting losses. He seeks to cultivate Russia’s strategic partnership with Turkey, wants to preserve ties with Israel (against the preferences of his top brass), and certainly cannot afford the risk of a direct military clash with the US. Yet, he cannot fail to see that the al-Assad regime is an expensive liability, which entangles Russia in the sticky Iranian connection. In the domestic arena, the waste of resources and lives in the far-away Syria has become a focus of discontent driven by falling incomes and shrinking social benefits. Moscow cannot afford another setback in the unprofitable Syrian enterprise but seems unable to prevent them in the mutating war, mismanaged by its irreconcilable partners.