Assad's Symbolic Missile Defense

Russia's S300 system is formidible, but not if the Syrians can't operate it.

In justifying its decision to sell Syria the S300, a sophisticated $800 million anti-aircraft and missile defense system, Russia argued that it was making the move to deter foreign powers from intervening in Syria. In reality, the S300 will do nothing of the sort in the short run and may not even do so in the next couple of years.

The S300 system is exceedingly large and complex. It would take many years to train Syrian officers to master its multiple capabilities. Unless the Russians are going to man it themselves in the interim, the current Syrian regime may be gone before its military can grasp the technology. Even then, it will take time to ship from Russia and deploy amidst the chaos and confusion of a civil war, notwithstanding Damascus's announcement that some of the system's components have already reached Syria.

The S300 is a formidable system. It tracks and engages numerous targets simultaneously, and also employs a radar system that allows the operator to peep deep into the airspace of adversaries. In Syria’s hands, this radar system would allow Damascus and its allies to see any and all aircraft taking off at distances of 225 miles. This is what makes the system so destabilizing in a region where distances are not so large.

In 1998, the Cypriot government signed a contract to buy an S300 system from Russia, which would have been deployed against Turkey. This created an unprecedented diplomatic crisis. Cypriot radars would have been able to see and target much of the Turkish airspace. Ankara threatened to bomb them as soon as they arrived on the island. After months of negotiations, brokered by the United States and others, the crisis was eventually resolved when the Cypriots, having signed the deal and committed to pay for the system, agreed reluctantly to transfer it to Greece. NATO member Greece then deployed the sophisticated Russian system on the island of Crete.

For the very same reason, Israel is also threatening to take out the missiles if they arrive in Syria. But perhaps they need not worry. NATO and Western militaries (including Israel) have had access to the S300s in Crete for more than a decade and thus have had many opportunities to train against them. By now they have mastered their weaknesses. In fact, there were rumors that in the days of close Turkish-Israeli relations, the Israeli Air Force helped train its Turkish counterpart on how to operate against the S300s.

Perhaps a more interesting question is why Russia is prepared to sell such sophisticated equipment to a regime whose future is far from secure. A cynical person might suggest that the Russians will only deliver if the Syrians pay cash. If the system is never delivered, then they get the best of both worlds. And how will Russia be paid? Iran just announced a $4 billion credit line to Damascus.

By announcing their intent to sell this system on the eve of a conference on Syria in Geneva and as the European arms embargo on Syria has been lifted, the Russians may be more interested in shoring up Syrian confidence. Given that deliveries and deployments are years away, this is a psychological move designed to signal to all, and most importantly to Assad and his supporters, that they are not about to give up on their ally, no matter what.

The other recipients of Russia’s message are Iran and Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shiite organization, Hezbollah, has thrown down the gauntlet in Syria by openly and energetically siding with the Assad regime. It has taken the lead in fighting for the strategic Syrian town of Qusayr. Hezbollah’s decision is a risky one for both Lebanon and that organization’s own future. The Russian announcement, however, gives Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah room to breathe.

While it is important for Washington to continue to oppose the sale of such sophisticated weaponry to the likes of Assad, Russia’s decision ought to be seen for what it is: a symbolic and psychological effort to strengthen the regime and its supporters. Assad had been feeling that the momentum was shifting to him. In his mind, this is a vindication. For the opposition, the question remains: what can they do to counter this perception?

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.