A Russian military aircraft with 14 people on board was reportedly inadvertently shot down by allied Syrian forces as they attempted to engage incoming Israeli missile fire on Monday, exemplifying the increasingly complicated battle space Syria has become.
According to statements released in Russian state media, a Russian IL-20 maritime patrol aircraft was flying over the Mediterranean soon after a group of Israeli F-16s conducted missile strikes against Syrian targets in the nearby Latakia province. The Syrian forces, in an effort to retaliate following the strikes, released a series of anti-aircraft weapons that ultimately shot down the IL-20. It disappeared into the Mediterranean soon thereafter with no official word as to the fate of the Russian troops on board. It is possible that a naval base in Latakia with a large Russian military presence may have been among the Israeli targets, though Israeli officials have thus far refrained from offering any form of statement.
U.S. officials first learned of the incident when Syrian forces began broadcasting an emergency search and rescue request on international frequencies. U.S. officials,who wished to remain nameless, told the media the U.S. was told the specific type of aircraft that had gone down by officials representing another nation, though they chose not to identify the nation. It seems likely, however, that the information was relayed to U.S. officials via the Syrian deconfliction line by Russian authorities, who would be among the only national entities in the region that would be aware of the exact type of aircraft and number of personnel on board so soon after the incident.
Ironically, the weapon system used to shoot down the Russian IL-20 was likely supplied by the Russian government. Thus far, Russian sourced anti-aircraft weapons have done little to prevent incoming ballistic missile barrages from the United States, France and the UK on two separate occasions, but they did successfully shoot down an Israeli F-16 in February. Western Syria is said to have large numbers of anti-air assets, including radar systems and surface-to-air missiles.
Despite Syria’s claims to have successfully intercepted some 83 of 103 inbound missiles during the last U.S. led retaliatory strikes brought on by Syria’s use of chemical weapons in April, little evidence ever surfaced to support those claims. The following month, Israel mounted an air offensive against Iranian Quds operating within Syria, but were engaged by Syrian air defense assets. They were unsuccessful in shooting down any Israeli aircraft, but the Israelis were able to destroy one of the most advanced Russian anti-air defense platforms on the market, the Pantsir-S1. Notably, the Israeli pilot that scored that kill was flying an F-16I, which boasts no stealth capabilities whatsoever. These repeated embarrassments prompted many to begin questioning whether or not Russian sourced air defense systems were actually very effective at all, as repeated opportunities to demonstrate their prowess had instead resulted in utter defeat followed by half-hearted explanations. In fact, one Russian official excused the destruction of the advanced Pantsir-S1 by way of 4th generation aircraft by saying they simply “weren’t ready yet,” despite it happening hours after the initial offensive had begun.
It would seem the air defense systems Russia sold Syria are indeed capable of shooting down military aircraft — just not necessarily the ones they’re pointed at.