Russia says it will supply Syria with a version of the S-300 air and missile-defense system, despite objections from Washington and Tel Aviv. The Kremlin made the decision to supply Damascus with the potent air-defense system after a Syrian S-200 surface-to-air missile battery mistakenly shot down a Russian Ilyushin Il-20M Coot-A intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft during an Israeli raid on Assad regime forces on September 17.
“A modern S-300 air defense missile system will be supplied to the Syrian Armed Forces within two weeks,” Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said on September 24, as reported by the state-owned TASS news agency. “It is capable of intercepting air assault weapons at a distance of more than 250 kilometers and hit simultaneously several air targets.”
The Kremlin has decided to supply the Syrian regime with the potent S-300 because Moscow blames Israel for the downing of its Il-20M despite the fact that it was a Syrian-operated weapon that brought the four-engine turboprop down. The Russians accuse Tel Aviv of using the lumbering ISR plane as cover during an air raid by four Israeli F-16 fighters on a Syrian regime target.
“I will underscore—at the request of the Israeli side, in 2013 we suspended the delivery of S-300 systems that were ready for the dispatch, while the Syrian military had undergone training,” Shoigu said. “Now the situation has changed, and we are not to blame.”
Shoigu also noted that Moscow would send Syria advanced battle management and combat identifications systems so that Damascus’ forces will be able to ensure that they can properly identify Russian aircraft in the future. “The command posts of Syrian air defense forces and units will be equipped with automated control systems only supplied to the Russian armed forces,” Shoigu said. “This will facilitate centralized control over all forces and resources of the Syrian air defense, monitor the situation in the air, and ensure operative issuance of orders. Most importantly, we will guarantee the identification of all Russian aircrafts by the Syrian air defense systems.”
Indeed, while Russian president Vladimir Putin initially put the blame for the incident on the fog of war, more recently the Kremlin has said that it blames Israel for the loss of its aircraft. “The information presented by the Israeli military on the operation of their aircraft over Syrian territory differs from the conclusions of the Russian Defence Ministry,” the Kremlin said in a statement. “Russia proceeds from the premise that the actions of the Israeli Air Force were the main cause of the tragedy.”
The Kremlin said in a call to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it believes that delivering these additional weapons systems to the Syrian regime is the only way to safeguard lives of Russian servicemen operating in Syria. “Vladimir Putin emphasized that Russia’s decisions to bolster the combat capabilities of Syrian air defenses are appropriate at this juncture and primarily intended to thwart any potential threat to the lives of the Russian military service members fulfilling the tasks of combating international terrorism,” the Kremlin said.
During his conversation with Putin, Netanyahu emphasized the Israeli view “that transferring advanced weapons systems into irresponsible hands will increase the dangers in the region, and added that Israel will continue to defend its security and its interests.”
Washington also waded into the issue, with National Security Advisor John Bolton calling the Russian decision to arm Syria with the S-300 a “major mistake” and a “significant escalation.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he expects to take the matter up with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Syria to Blame
Israel also reiterated that Syria is to blame for the downing of the Russian Il-20M. “Since the tragic events in the skies over Syria I have spoken twice with President Putin. I expressed to him our deep regret over the loss of the crew of the Russian plane that was brought down by irresponsible Syrian anti-aircraft fire,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a tweet. “This morning I convened the Security Cabinet which received a full update on the recent events. The Security Cabinet ministers also share in the deep sorrow of the Russian families and the Russian people.”
However, while Tel Aviv expressed its regret over the loss of the lives of the Russian servicemen, Israel says that it has no option but to push back against Iranian encroachment. Thus, Israel will continue to cooperate with Moscow, but Tel Aviv will not back down from taking action against Iran. “We give full backing to the IDF [Israel Defense Force] in its actions to defend the state,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to take action to prevent the establishment of an Iranian military presence in Syria and we will continue the security coordination between the IDF and the Russian military. . . . To this end, I agreed with President Putin that IDF and Russian military working teams would meet soon. We will do what is necessary to defend the security of Israel.”
While the Russians have not said which version of the S-300 it will be giving to Syria, the weapons will like be the relatively modern S-300PMU-2 variant. However, given that it would take several months to train Syrian crews to operate the sophisticated S-300 system, it is a near certainty that Russian crews would initially operate the missiles.
“I think it’s unlikely that the Syrians will be ready to operate this without Russian advisers and support for the immediate future,” Center for Naval Analyses research scientist Michael Kofman told the National Interest. “There’s a degree of ambiguity there that introduces some uncertainty as to who is really operating the system.”
Indeed, given that there is no dispute that it was the Syrian military that downed the Russian Il-20M, it is possible that the Russians do not intend to ever allow Assad regime crews to operate the S-300. Given that fact that Shoigu stated that Moscow would equip Assad regime command posts with “automated control systems only supplied to the Russian armed forces” in order to “facilitate centralized control over all forces and resources of the Syrian air defense,” it is possible that the Kremlin is planning on de facto taking over the management of all Syrian air defenses. Certainly, that would ensure that poorly trained and motivated Syrian troops would not inadvertently attack friendly forces in a panic while under fire.
What’s more, the presence of Russian forces manning Syrian-owned air defenses would complicate Israeli attempts to strike at the Assad regime and Iranian forces operating inside Syria. Israel can ill afford to strike directly at Syrian targets during a raid if that would mean that Moscow’s forces were caught in the crossfire since the Kremlin will not likely let another such incident slide unpunished. As such, the presence of additional Russian forces would constrain Israel’s ability to act inside Syria.
Of course, if Russia does turn the S-300 batteries over to Syrian operators, then there is always the distinct possibility that Israel could attempt to eliminate those weapons. Indeed, Israel has the perfect weapon to do just that—its newly acquired fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. However, in the immediate future, while Syria’s S-300s are operated by Russian forces, Israel will likely be hampered in its ability to strike further targets in Syria.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.
Image: Russian servicemen watch the launch of the S-300 air defence system missile during the International Army Games 2016 at the Ashuluk military polygon outside Astrakhan, Russia, August 7, 2016. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov