Syrian air defense forces may have accidentally shot down a Russian Il-20 Coot electronic intelligence aircraft during an attempt to respond to apparent Israeli air strikes against targets in Syria’s coastal Latakia governorate. Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Defense claims that a French frigate may have been responsible and the French have yet to confirm or deny that they had anything to do with the loss of the aircraft.
On Sept. 17, 2018, CNN, citing an unnamed U.S. government official, reported that the U.S. military believed Syrian surface-to-air missiles had brought down the Il-20. The Russian Defense Ministry did confirm the aircraft had gone missing in the early hours of Sept. 18, 2018, local time in Syria, but did not say who or what might have been responsible for the crash.
„The connection with the crew of the Russian Il-20 aircraft was lost over the Mediterranean Sea when the plane was returning to the airbase of Khmeimim, 35 kilometers from the coast of Syria,” a Russian Ministry of Defense official said, according to state-run media outlet TASS. The „Il-20 … disappeared during the attack of four Israeli F-16 aircraft on Syrian targets in the province of Latakia.”
The Israel Defense Forces have not commented on the strikes, which appeared to involve F-16 fighters firing stand-off weapons, possibly from Lebanese airspace, into Latakia at a Syrian Organization for Technological Industries facility. This organization is linked to Syria’s chemical weapons and advanced missile programs. Syrian state media claimed the country’s military had shot down a number of incoming missiles.
The US military believes that Syrian anti-aircraft artillery accidentally shot down a Russian maritime patrol aircraft Monday while the Syrian regime was attempting to shoot down a barrage of Israeli missiles targeting locations in Latakia, a US official tells CNN
— Ryan Browne (@rabrowne75) September 17, 2018
This the third reported Israeli strike in Syria since the beginning of September 2018. Israel reportedly conducted another raid on targets at Damascus International Airport on Sept. 15, 2018, and had hit targets near the port city of Tartus, where Russia has its only naval port on the Mediterranean, on Sept. 4, 2018.
The United States reportedly learned that the Il-20 had crashed when Syrian forces broadcast an emergency message on an international frequency, according to CNN. American officials then got confirmation of the incident and additional details from a third country, which the source declined to identify.
The U.S. military has denied any involvement in the strikes in Latakia. However, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that „Russian radars fixed missile launches from the French frigate Auvergne, which was in that area,” according to TASS.
Auvergne is an Aquitaine-class, or FREMM multipurpose frigate, that carries both Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN) land-attack cruise missiles and Aster 15 surface-to-air missiles. In April 2018, her sister ship Languedoc took part in a massive U.S.-led missile barrage against Syrian chemical weapons-related sites. In August 2018, The United States, the United Kingdom, and France reiterated their willingness to take action again in response to another one of Syria’s chemical weapon attacks.
The increasingly convoluted war in Syria is highly susceptible to a major miscalculation that could spark an international crisis. The shooting down of a large surveillance aircraft with over a dozen lives onboard could be that spark. Hopefully, that’s not the case, but there is always the risk that the event could be used as an information warfare fulcrum even if it was a simple case of friendly fire. Alternatively, Moscow could downplay the incident out of embarrassment if it becomes clear to external parties that Syrian air defenses did indeed down the aircraft by accident.
We are monitoring for any major movements of air traffic in the Mediterranean and will update this story as more information becomes available.
UPDATE: 12:20pm PDT—
The French government finally commented on Russia’s insinuations. Multiple outlets report that officials categorically denied any involvement in the incident. It will be interesting to see if we get additional denials as the day goes on.
Meanwhile, activity in the area has been sparse, at least as far as plane a ship trackers are concerned. A Russia tug departed Tartus toward the waters off Latakia but that makes sense as there is some sort of search and rescue operation underway.
Syria: Russian Black Sea Fleet tug ‘Prof. Nikolay Muru’ has left Tartus harbor heading for Latakia. Likely participating in a search & rescue mission for the downed Russian Il-20 aircraft. pic.twitter.com/NWt8G5eZLT
— Hans de Vreij (@hdevreij) September 18, 2018
Air traffic has been very light in the area after the incident as well. Even the usual snoopers haven’t shown up. A RAF Tornado did pop up flying a fairly normal route into Eastern Syria, but they held up for a while over the Eastern Mediterranean, directly off Latakia. It isn’t clear what this was all about, but it could be something unrelated to the incident. After last evening’s tragic event, squawking while transiting the area is probably a smart move on the Tornado crew’s part.
Interesting, prob unrelated to last night’s „Israeli-French” strike in Latakia, downing of Russian spyplane.
RAF Tornado going tactical from Akrotiri, fully tracked holding west of Latakia, then hdg Syria/Iraq via Turkey, back via Jordan + Israel 5 hrs later@cencio4 @CivMilAir pic.twitter.com/EwmE5t6kGe
— avi scharf (@avischarf) September 18, 2018