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Syrian Regime Forces Shot Down Russian Military Plane by Accident

Russian IL-20 Surveillance Plane
Igor Konashenkov

Igor Konashenkov

Russian Ministry of Defense Spokesperson

"By using the Russian plane as cover the Israeli air pilots made it vulnerable to Syrian air defense fire. As a result, the Ilyushin-20, its reflective surface being far greater than that of the F-16, was downed by a missile launched with the S-200 system.”

Likely False
The Israeli planes did not use the Russian plane as “cover.”

On the night of September 17-18, Syrian regime military forces shot down a Russian military plane by accident shortly after Israeli Air Force planes conducted an air raid inside Syria. All 15 crew member aboard the Ilyushin Il-20 maritime patrol aircraft were killed.

Initially, the Russian Defense Ministry blamed Israel despite knowing the plane had been shot down by an S-200 surface-to-air missile operated by the Syrian Arab Army. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson claimed the Israeli F-16s were using the Russian military plane as “cover” to escape detection and ground fire during the raid. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu himself repeated this claim.

SYRIA -- An Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force takes off from the Russian airbase in Hmeimim, November 12, 2015
SYRIA -- An Il-20 electronic intelligence plane of the Russian air force takes off from the Russian airbase in Hmeimim, November 12, 2015

However, President Vladimir Putin declined to point fingers when asked about the incident at a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“In this case, it is more a chain of tragic circumstances because an Israeli fighter did not down our aircraft,” Putin said.

“It goes without saying that we must get to the bottom of this. Our attitude towards this tragedy is set forth in a statement by our Defense Ministry, and has been fully coordinated with me.”

The Israeli Defense Forces’ official Twitter account offered condolences to Russia for the lost crewmembers, but put the blame for the incident on the Assad regime forces which actually shot down the plane. The Israeli Twitter account said the Israeli warplanes were “not within the area of the operation” and had returned to Israeli airspace when the Russian jet was downed.

The Russian independent news outlet Meduza interviewed Russian military air defense expert Mikhail Khodarenko on what might have caused the incident. He said the fault most likely lies with the air defense system’s crew, which did not take the steps necessary to properly identify their target before launching a missile. He also suggested the possibility of a technical fault, such as a failure of the missile’s guidance system, but in his opinion this was less likely than human error.

While we are not able to independently verify the Israeli military claim, taken together with Putin’s remarks and the Meduza interview, we find the Russian Defense Ministry’s initial allegations are likely false.