It wasn't premeditated
And so it starts. Russia must attack Israel, no—she must obliterate it, Putin is "soft", the world is coming to an end, Zionists are in control of Kremlin, Russia turns another cheek. And on, and on, and on. The chorus of noble warriors with the evils of Zionism is getting louder with each day. Behind this hysteria surrounding the tragedy of Russian VKS' IL-20 somehow crucial and widely publicized news have been ignored completely. It is no surprise they were ignored by all kinds of "specialists" in strategy, politics, and armchair strategists (I am one myself). The news are pretty simple. Lt. General Alexander Ionov, former Deputy Chief of Main Staff of Russian Air Force from 1991 through 2001, stated to popular Russian media Zvezda that it is guaranteed that Syrian Air Defense forces were not provided with compatible IFF equipment and codes.
For those who don't know what IFF (Interrogator Friend-Foe) is—it is electronic system which provides both a defense against friendly fire and easy radar identification of friendly forces. On older radar friendly forces would usually be marked with arches (below or above) radar marks of the targets and that is how one knows how not to shoot at them. The IFF technology is extremely sensitive as are the "codes" on which it runs. It wasn't provided, and for a good reason, to Syrian Forces. So, the question, in this case which will be asked by laymen is: but what about "full integration" of Russian and Syrian Air Defenses. It is a legitimate question.
Without going into much detail how a key aspect of this integration is provided—in Western parlance it is called CEC (Cooperative Engagement Capability)—there are reasons to assume that in case of older S-200s the targeting data could have been provided by radio-voice commands. But here comes this most important fact—Syrian S-200 and its radar did have a track and, possibly, a lock on the Israeli F-16s.
The certainty of this fact, as in old proverb about the proof being in the pudding, is in all advanced aircraft being equipped with Emission Detectors which are a warning system and Israeli aircraft using available "screen" in a form of Russian IL-20 on its approach to Khmeimim Air Base.
In other words, Israeli aircraft were forced to seek a cover and one can only imagine how warnings were screaming in their cockpits. They saw IL-20 with its huge Radar Cross Section (RCS). For those with a short attention span it is worth reminding them that Syrian Air Defense does have a track record of shooting down or damaging IAF's aircraft. In fact, apart from actually admitting their losses, IAF is still mum on the fate of "damaged by birds" F-35.
In other words, Syrian AD does track and locks on Israeli combat aircraft. S-200 missiles are what is known SARH—Semi-Active Radar Homing, meaning that missile needs the illumination of the target by the air defense complex radar and that is where the professionalism, especially at the significant engagement ranges (tens and even hundreds of kilometers), becomes absolutely crucial. But so does a protocol, or ROE (Rules of Engagement), for people in control of any particular AD complex which is not "inside" the loop of highly sensitive IFF.
At this stage, I do have reasons to believe that under a huge pressure of the situation unfolding in what used to be a calm sector of approaches to Khmeimim Air Base, which was agreed between Israel and Russia, and where IAF's aircraft were not supposed to be, the Syrian crew simply went for the target which was clearly visible and shaded smaller RCS Israeli planes.
Israel violated in this case not just an ethical norm by hiding behind IL-20, it violated much more—it flew it planes into the area which was specifically designated as "out of reach" for IAF. As former Israel's Service Nativ' Yakov Kedmi stated after the events, all this tragedy became a result of Israeli recklessness and unprofessionalism, he called this mistake by Israeli generals a doom-spelling one.
Reaction of Israel following the events is telling—she went into the full damage control mode with Netanyahu urgently calling Vladimir Putin. He offered the Commander of Israeli Air Force to be immediately on his way to Moscow, all diplomatic, informational, government channels between Israel and Russia got immediately engaged.
This was a very telling sign of a real panic and confusion on the Israeli side which also immediately offered condolences. This is not an act of war, as many would love it to be, some out of often justified hatred of Israel hoping for Russia to dispose of this "evil", others purely out of adrenalin rush in anticipation of TV picture of people killing each other.
But the issue of interaction between Russia and Syrian forces is real and it is not easily addressed for a number of purely military and cultural reasons. But some conclusions can already be made:
1. There will be no "annihilation" of Israel, nor will there be any shooting war between Russia and Jewish State as many would love and lust it to be;
2. There will, however, be some form of no-fly zone and as Vladimir Putin stated Russia will take “the steps that everyone will notice.” Obviously this important statement by the head of Russian State got drowned in the ocean of rage and speculations, and confusion I may add, but this has become a familiar pattern by now.
3. Issue of ROE and interaction—the most important one. Specialists must review protocols and tactical procedures. Engagement caveats must be strictly enforced.
4. Training of Syrian personnel and, obvious now, necessity, once advanced S-300s (PMU) are additionally delivered to Syria, to have Russian advisers full time in any Syrian Air Defense crew dealing with much more advanced technology than old S-200s.
In the end, this tragedy, should serve as a real serious lesson and, in a military sense a warning that one better stick to the agreements or things may spiral out of control very fast. Israel decided that it is allowed to break agreements. Israel should ask Turkey what happens when one does Russia wrong—Turkish Air Force knows it too well after shooting down Russian SU-24. It got grounded. Now Turkey is a situational ally of Iran and Russia in the region. As per larger geopolitical sense—just wait and see. But I made myself explicit on that matter not for once. I might as well repeat myself—dogs bark, but caravan passes on.
UPDATE(S): Superb updates from actual Russian very real officers (Google, Google Translate, dive, dive) through famous military observer Viktor Barantez (former senior officer) in response to Viktor Alxnis emotional piece in Vzglyad. Response of serving (active) senior officer of Main Staff of VKS, Colonel Sergei Paramonov in an interview:
Why We Couldn't Defend IL-20
A superb professional response to all those trolls and internet "experts" who, as was expected, are already painting new "rich" picture of massive Israeli-French-Russia military-geopolitical conspiracy. We ain't seen nothing yet from them. But Paramonov literally sinks all arguments in favor of all kinds of conspiracy theories.
Moreover, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Haustov, Deputy Commander of the Air Defense Regiment fresh from Syria gives explanation on tactics and technical means involved.
Why IFF Didn't Prevent The Tragedy of IL-20 In Syria.
Victor Baranetz and Komsomolka (Komsomolskaya Pravda) deserve only the highest praise for them for releasing these interviews with real professionals and solid reviews (within allowed for open press framework) of the whole situation. I will translate only one phrase from Haustov's interview:
К тому же, не забывайте, что С-200 - оружие старенькое. А подготовка сирийских спецов ПВО, мягко говоря, часто оставляет желать много лучшего...
Translation: Moreover, do not forget that S-200 is an old weapon, while training of Syrian Air Defense specialists leaves a lot to be desired.
Source: Reminiscence of the Future