RUSSIAN PRESIDENT RESPONDS TO DOWNING OF PLANE

Russian plane

By Andrew Richards

Russian president Vladimir Putin has described the downing of a Russian military plane in Syria as “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances”, in a measured statement that appeared to step back from earlier threats of direct retaliation against Israel made by his defence ministry. Russia had made the threats after a military reconnaissance plane with 15 crew members on board was shot down by mistake over the Mediterranean on Monday night by Syrian government anti-aircraft defences aiming at four Israeli fighter jets that Moscow said had intentionally used the Russian plane as cover. (Financial Times)

Background

The ability of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to endure seven years of brutal war, fighting against multiple opposition groups (supported by the powerful West), would not have been possible without the help of Russia and Iran. If it were not for them, the war would likely have ended years ago in the favour of the opposition.

Iran joined the Syrian war on the side of Mr Assad in 2015, with the intention of holding on to their regional interest – the Shia militant group, Hezbollah. Hezbollah had entered the war in 2012 as Mr Assad had begun losing control over large parts of the country. Both Iran and Hezbollah know that should the Assad government fall, their options of launching sites for attacks on Israel would be more limited.

Russia also joined the war in 2015 upon Syria’s request, after it became apparent that strong military help from an ally was needed to strengthen the Assad government in the face of stiff opposition. Russia has a naval port in Syria (Tartus) that was in danger should the opposition have defeated Mr Assad, so Russia was prompted to act on behalf of its military interests in the region. The Tartus port is Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean, and its only ‘overseas’ base allowing its navy a European reach.

Iran and Russia’s involvement in the war is therefore understandable. As the US, together with various NATO nations (Britain and France included) had joined the war on the side of the opposition, geopolitical analysts suggested that the war had very little to do with Syria and was rather a powerplay between the old ‘Cold War’ foes. Using the war in Syria as a proxy battlefield, both sides were able to engage the other without declaring direct war, and keeping actual war from their own countries.

Beyond the political theories, the war in Syria has caused one of the largest humanitarian disasters in history. More than six million Syrians have been displaced throughout the country, another five million left the country as refugees, and more than half a million have been killed.

Russia-Israel relationship

With regard to the Russian aircraft that was recently shot down, there are two key questions: is Israel getting involved in the Syrian war, and why is Russia not retaliating against Israel? Firstly, Israel is not joining the multiple players that have chosen sides in the civil war. Rather, Israel maintains it is acting defensively against an “existential threat” from Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah. Israel claims to have credible information that Iran is using its participation in the Syrian war as a means to supply Hezbollah with arms that can be used against Israel. Israel therefore asserts it is taking a pre-emptive defensive stance against Iranian and Hezbollah targets.

As for Russia’s lack of retaliation against Israel, the answer lies in the close relationship that Russia and Israel share. When the world criticised Russia for its war in Chechnya, Israel refrained from implementing sanctions against Russia. Years later, when Russia annexed Crimea, Israel again remained silent in the midst of international condemnation. In the case of the Skripal poisoning in March 2018 that led to the expulsion of 150 Russian diplomats from Europe and the US, Israel chose not to follow the West’s example and instead increased its bilateral trade with Russia by 20 percent. In April this year, when a combined US-Israel force struck targets in Syria (the US striking alleged chemical weapons facilities and Israel targeting a drone base used by Iranian forces), Russia was quick to condemn the US but did not directly accuse Israel.

Some analysts have raised the issue of the November 2015 incident when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that had entered its airspace and Russia quickly implemented sanctions against Turkey as punishment. Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the ‘unfortunate’ downing of the Russian reconnaissance aircraft is nothing like the 2015 incident with Turkey, and has chosen to defuse the situation and to move away from a possible confrontation with Israel. Russia also knows that if it retaliated against Israel, the US would intervene. A confrontation with Israel would further reinforce the idea that Russia is purposefully seeking a confrontation with the US.

Initially, the Russian defence ministry responded negatively against Israel for the downing of the Russian aircraft, saying: “We consider these provocative actions by Israel as hostile. Fifteen Russian military service members died because of irresponsible actions of the Israeli military. It’s absolutely contrary to the spirit of Russia-Israeli partnership. We reserve the right for an adequate response.” Mr Putin, however, downplayed the incident and refrained from blaming Israel, saying that it was the result of “a chain of tragic circumstances”.

Russia’s reconciliatory efforts in Syria

Russia’s diplomatic role in the Middle East has increased in influence and is seen by many as a positive thing (as Russia has initiated steps towards ending the Syrian war). On 22 February 2016, Russia (together with the US) brokered a ceasefire that saw hostilities pausing for five months. Another US-Russia deal enabled a ceasefire in September of the same year (though this only lasted a week). In December 2016, Russia and Turkey brokered a new ceasefire deal that lasted until February 2017. In May 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered yet another ceasefire. And on 9 July 2017, Russia, together with the US and Jordan, brokered a final agreement that enabled an open-ended ceasefire in southern Syria that is still holding today.

In Idlib in northwest Syria, the Syrian army was recently planning a major military operation intent on defeating “the last major stronghold of terrorists who are trying to gamble on the status of the de-escalation zone and hold civilians as human shields and bring the armed formations ready for negotiations with the Syrian government to their knees” (according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov). The United Nations warned that a large-scale military operation would result in a humanitarian crisis that could potentially see another million Syrians leave the country, as well as a huge loss of life. However, after weeks of negotiations, Russia and Turkey were able to broker a deal (reached on 17 September) that saw the Syrian army refrain from attacking the city. The agreement sets the groundwork for a demilitarised zone that will allow all remaining militants to leave the city. Several thousand of displaced Syrians have subsequently returned to the city.

FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

“Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5:9) The unlikely trio of Iran, Russia and Israel, historic enemies and yet allies by proxy, proves that peace can be obtained when mutual interests are pursued.  Matthew 5:9 indicates that God delights in those who bring reconciliation to broken relationships.   Russia’s continued efforts to broker ceasefires and Mr Putin’s decision not to confront Israel on the recent incident that killed 15 Russian air force members is a positive sign that Russia, one of the key players in the war in Syria, is actively seeking to make peace, rather than encourage further confrontation that would see the continued the loss of life. Prayer is needed, that the political leaders will pursue peace above all.

PRAY 

  • For the role players in the Syrian conflict to pursue peace above all else
  • For the grieving family members of the Russian airmen killed
  • For believers in the region to continue working towards reconciliation and peace

 

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