Syria’s air defenses have again proven ineffective and even dangerous as they killed 15 Russian service members flying aboard an Il-20 spy plane during an air battle over the Mediterranean on Sept. 17, 2018.
Syria has Russian-made air defenses that it’s had ample opportunity to use as Israel regularly attacks the country and the US has twice fired missiles at its military facilities in response to chemical weapons use.
But Syria has never credibly recorded an missile intercept. Syria’s lone anti-air victory came in February 2018 when an Israeli F-16, the same plane rumored to have taken part in Sept. 17, 2018’s strike, went down from S-200 fire.
On Sept. 17, 2018, that same missile defense system not only failed to hit a single Israeli plane or verifiably intercept a single incoming missile, but it took down an allied aircraft in the process.
Russia’s ministry of defense initially blamed the shoot down on a purposeful attempt by Israel to trick Syria into the friendly fire, but Russian President Vladimir Putin later referred to the event as an accident.
But, according to Justin Bronk, an air combat expert at the Royal United Services Institute, Israel could have planned on using the Russian Il-20 for cover all along.
An Israeli F-16I.
(Major Ofer, Israeli Air Force)
If the Russian Il-20 was on a regular patrol route of the Mediterranean, Bronk said the Israelis may have tried to plot an attack under a leg of its planned flight path, that they would have observed via local intelligence assets or in information sharing with the Russians themselves.
“One of the Israeli hallmarks when they do these sort of fairly bold strikes within the coverage of the Syrian air defenses is heavy electronic warfare and jamming,” Bronk told Business Insider.
So not only do the Syrians face heavy electronic interference and jamming of their radars, the threat of Israeli bombs rocking their position, and a big, obvious Russian target flying just above the shrouded F-16s, history shows they’re just not that good at air defense.
When the US struck Syria in April 2018, photography showed Syrian air defense sites firing missiles that burned across the sky leaving long, bright trails even in the instant it takes to snap a photo. But Business Insider consulted experts at the time to find out that Syria likely fired many of these missiles with out any target at all in a helpless, face saving attempt to convince the people of Damascus that they hadn’t sat idly by.
“It would be very unlikely that the Israelis were trying to engineer a situation where the Syrians shot down a Russian plane,” Bronk said, but perhaps they did intend to use the Il-20 overhead to convince Syria not to shoot.
“The S-200 is not a very sophisictated system,” said Bronk. “It’s not going to distinguish between a fighter and a big plane.”
Syria could have easily communicated with the Russians, but likely relies on voice communications which can easily be overwhelmed in times of crisis.
If it weren’t for the Israeli strike, the 15 Russians likely would have survived to this day. But ultimately, the death of the Russians and downing of the Il-20 comes down to “sloppy fire discipline from Syrian air defenses,” said Bronk.
And for sloppy work from Syrian air defenses, this example hardly represents the first.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.