Syrian anti-aircraft batteries responding to Israeli strikes on Monday night downed a Russian military plane, killing all 15 of its crew, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday said the friendly fire incident and resulting crash of the Russian Ilyushin Il-20 surveillance aircraft was caused by “tragic chance events,” dialling back Moscow’s response after it had earlier blamed Israel for putting its aircraft in the crossfire of Syrian missiles.
The Russian Defence Ministry had called Israel’s actions “hostile” and threatened retaliation after accusing the country of failing to give the Russian aircraft enough warning and using its plane as cover from Syrian fire.
“We view the actions of the Israeli military as hostile,” Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told Russian state television on Tuesday. “As a result of the irresponsible actions of the Israeli military, 15 Russian service personnel perished.”
But Putin, speaking in Moscow on Tuesday, rejected that Israel was to blame for the “friendly fire” incident as both Russia and Israel raced to defuse tensions and prevent a major flare-up of tensions in southern Syria where both air forces operate.
“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.
However, Mr Putin told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call that Israeli military actions in Syria were in breach of the country's sovereignty, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Russia is supporting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the seven-year civil war against rebels and militants. Its air force began strikes in aid of Damascus in September 2015, entering a conflict that has drawn in and entangled an array of international actors.
Mr Putin said Tuesday's crash differed from the Turkish downing of a Russian plane in 2015 as Israel had not shot down the aircraft. The Russian leader had called the Turkish military’s actions at the time “a stab in the back delivered by the accomplices of terrorists” in what was an acrimonious split in relations between Moscow and Ankara.
Russia summoned Israel’s deputy ambassador in Moscow to the Foreign Ministry after Tuesday's incident and Israel’s Foreign Ministry refused to disclose what was discussed. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to respond. He expressed sorrow for the loss of Russian lives, a rare acknowledgement of Israeli activity in Syria, and blamed Damascus for the downing of the plane.
Mr Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a phone call that Syria beared responsibility for the downing of the electronic intelligence plane. He offered to dispatch the Israeli air force chief to Moscow to share details.
He noted the importance of the continuation of security coordination between Israel and Russia, saying it helped prevent many losses on both sides. He said Israel is determined to block Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria and transferring weapons to its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah for use against Israel.
Mr Putin said Moscow's response would aim at securing the safety of Russian military personnel in Syria's complex civil war in which various outside powers have backed opposing sides.
“As for retaliatory measures, they will be aimed first and foremost at further ensuring the safety of our military personnel and facilities in Syria. And these will be steps that everyone will notice,” he said.
Russia had also earlier accused France of firing missiles at Syria from a frigate stationed in the Mediterranean, appearing to point to French responsibility in the plane’s downing, a claim Paris’ envoy to the US called “fake news”.
Any row between Israel and Russia could diminish Israel's freedom to carry out air strikes inside Syria on what it sees as the greatest threat to its security from Syria's war – build-ups of Iranian forces or groupings of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Since intervening in Syria, Russia has turned a blind eye to these attacks. Israel has launched about 200 such raids in the last two years, Israeli officials say.
The Israel military said that overnight its fighter jets had “targeted a facility of the Syrian Armed Forces from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon”.
It said the weapons targeted in the Mediterranean coastal city of Latakia, located in the western province of the same name that is a bastion of support for Mr Al Assad, “were meant to attack Israel and posed an intolerable threat against it”.
The IDF said the “deconfliction” system used by Israel and Russia “was in use tonight”, adding: “Israel will share all the relevant information with the Russian government to review the incident and to confirm the facts in this inquiry.”
The United Nations special envoy for Syria called on Russia, Syria and Israel "to refrain from military actions" following the downing of the Russian military aircraft.
Staffan de Mistura told the UN Security Council at the start of a meeting on Syria that new military action “would only exacerbate an already complex situation”.
His comments came as a military operation in the northwestern province of Idlib was averted on Monday. Russia and Turkey struck an agreement that created a new demilitarised zone in Idlib from which “radical” militants must withdraw.
The deal appeared to stop an imminent government ground offensive that world leaders had warned would result in a “bloodbath” in the last major rebel-held province, home to around three million people.
Damascus welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover "every inch" of Syria.