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Putin blames downing of Russian plane in Syria on ‘tragic chance events,’ plays down Israeli culpability

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in Moscow Sept. 18 about the Russian aircraft downed over Syria’s Mediterranean coast. (Video: AP)

BEIRUT — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday described the downing of a Russian plane in Syria as the result of “tragic chance events,” appearing to dial back a rare flare-up in tensions with Israel.

Fifteen Russian service personnel were killed late Monday after Syrian air defenses hit their reconnaissance plane. Russia’s Defense Ministry initially claimed that the crash was indirectly the fault of Israel, saying that the Israeli military had not given adequate warning to the Russian aircraft and that Israeli pilots used the plane as cover while they attacked Syrian targets.

But Putin, speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, played down claims of Israeli culpability. “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 to the bottom of what happened,” he said.

Russia, which began carrying out airstrikes in support of the Syrian government in September 2015, is one of President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest allies in a war that has entangled competing international powers. In a sign of the conflict’s broader dimensions, Israel’s air campaign in Syria is aimed at checking archrival Iran, Assad’s other key ally, which has deepened its influence by backing pro-government fighters and building military bases in the country.

Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoy a close personal relationship and have used face-to-face meetings to address issues of mutual interest in the Middle East. It was unclear Tuesday whether the latest crisis would test those ties. 

“As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria,” Putin said. “And these will be steps that everyone will notice.”

The leaders of Russia and Turkey brokered a deal Sept. 17, appearing to stop a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, the last rebel-held territory in Syria. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The confrontation between Russia and Israel erupted hours after Russia and Turkey agreed on a plan aimed at averting bloodshed in Idlib province, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria, ending weeks of speculation that an offensive there would prompt a full-scale humanitarian disaster.

The Kremlin said Tuesday that the downed jet would in no way prevent the Idlib deal from going ahead.

“This incident will have no effect. This agreement is a significant breakthrough,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

The Israeli military said Tuesday that its fighter jets had targeted a Syrian military facility in the port city of Latakia “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The weapons were meant to be used by the Lebanese Shiite militant group to attack Israel “and posed an intolerable threat,” the army said in an unusually detailed statement. Israel does not ordinarily comment in the aftermath of its strikes in Syria, although military officials said this month that more than 200 have been carried out since 2017. 

The Israeli Defense Ministry blamed “extensive and inaccurate” Syrian surface-to-air missile fire for the downing of the Russian plane and said Israeli jets were back inside Israeli airspace when the missiles were launched.

The Syrian antiaircraft batteries “fired indiscriminately” and apparently “did not bother to ensure that no Russian planes were in the air,” the statement said.

Ferris-Rotman reported from Moscow. Liz Sly in Beirut, Erin Cunningham in Istanbul and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report. 

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