The Missing Russian IL-20 Spy Plane. Is There a “Latakia Triangle?”

Ten days after Syrian missiles shot down the Russian Il-20 spy plane off their Mediterranean coast, Russian search teams have found no signs of the plane or the missing 15 military personnel aboard. Moscow’s decision to impose a broad electronic screen over this water has more to do with this search than with punishing Israel for its alleged role in downing the Ilyushin-20, or the impending arrival of the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group.

On Sept. 18, the day after the crash, eight Russian naval vessels were scouring a patch of sea 17 miles west of Latakia. When they came up empty, they were joined by two vessels equipped with special gear for locating sunken submarines. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose that the search for the missing plane is more intense than would be routine in such misfortunes, in view of a brand-new, top-line electronic gadget aboard, which the Russians believe is still undiscovered by Western agencies. It is believed to have been placed on the IL-20 for testing in real combat conditions. The Russians are anxious to recover it before it falls into the wrong hands.

The Il-20 aircraft itself is the Russian Air Force’s premier spy plane. It is an Electronic Intelligence Platform (ELINT) equipped with a wide array of antennas, Infrared and Optical sensors, a Side-Looking Airborne Radar and satellite communication equipment for real-time data-sharing. These Ilyushin-20s conduct regular reconnaissance missions in the Baltic. They fly with their transponders turned off, a regular practice, except that twice in recent years, these Russian spy planes were involved in “air proximity” incidents for flying too close to civilian airports or crowded airways. Near-collisions were recorded with a SAS Boeing 737 south of Malmo in March 2014, and in December of that year, with a Canadair CRJ-200 between Germany and Sweden.

Ten days is not long for the sea search of a lost aircraft. The searchers must factor in the quality of their equipment as well as the winds and underwater currents in the area. The currents are especially strong off the Syrian Latakia coast and drive in the direction of Turkish Hatay.

Our sources have learned that Russian President Vladimir Putin asked President Tayyip Erdogan to urgently deploy the Turkish navy and air force for locating any fragments of the plane or remains of the personnel, before the powerful currents crush the bodies and make them unrecognizable.

The Russians may recall a previous misfortune in this same part of the Mediterranean. On Aug. 16, 2010, the badly decomposed body of Yuri Ivanov was washed up on the Mediterranean shore of Hatay and discovered by a Turkish fisherman. Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanov was the second in command of Russian foreign intelligence, GRU. A month earlier, he had been sent to Syria to review military installations there as part of Moscow’s drive for a Middle East comeback. Posted in Latakia, he went for a swim one Saturday in the exact stretch of water in which the Russian spy plane was downed eight years later. To all intents and purposes, he disappeared without a trace, leaving only a trail of unanswered questions. Did he drown? Why was a senior GRU officer alone on a foreign beach without bodyguards? Why was there no one else on the beach who might have jumped in to rescue him? And were there any witnesses?

Moscow has always kept silent on this episode and allowed it to fade from memory. (DEBKAfile was the only publication to report that Maj. Gen. Yuri Ivanov’s body had been washed up on a Turkish beach after a month.) But the latest tragedy brings back a lingering question: Does a deadly “Latakia Triangle” lurk off the Latakia coast in waiting for more victims?

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