Russia’s missile system to impact conflict in Syria
TUNIS - Russia’s decision to deliver its S-300 missile defence system to Syrian President Bashar Assad stands to shape relations between Damascus and Israel and the contours of the conflict in Syria.
Moscow deferred delivery of the system in May in consideration of Israeli sensitivities over arming its neighbour. However, after the accidental downing of a Russian Il-20 by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, an incident Moscow says Israeli jets created, on September 28 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said deliveries of the missile defence system had begun.
Though not as capable as the next-generation S-400, Russia’s S-300 missile defence system could consolidate Damascus’s control of the skies over Syria. The S-300 will limit Israel’s ability to strike at what it perceives as Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria and add a level of complexity to the United States’ and Turkey’s ability to navigate airspace over their zones of influence in eastern and northern Syria, respectively.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that providing advanced weapon systems to “irresponsible players” would increase the dangers across the region.
However, it is perhaps a measure of Russia’s fury, especially among its military, over the plane’s downing that the deployment of the S-300 will proceed in Syria.
“Russia has a good, strong partnership with Israel, especially in keeping Iran in check, and Putin has a close relationship with Netanyahu,” said Mark Galeotti, a non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
Despite the personal intervention by Putin, a move regarded as designed to diffuse tension between Russia and Israel, anger in Russia’s military over the loss of the plane and the 15 servicemen aboard propelled events.
“In that context, it is interesting how tough a line [Russian] Defence Minister [Sergei] Shoigu took from the first, especially when it was clear that the blame was Syria’s,” Galeotti said.
That the missile defence system will be delivered is likely and there will be implications for all the sides involved in Syria.
“At the techno-tactical level, this system raises the risk to all air forces operating near Syria, including Israel, with its long-range and multi-target engagement capabilities,” said Assaf Orion, a retired Israeli brigadier-general and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute. “However, one may keep in mind that for the last 20 years Israel was preparing for this to appear in theatre.
“Certainly, this weapon in the incompetent and reckless Syrian hands is a source of concern to many beyond Israel, if we just recall Malaysian MH17 downed by a Russian SAM 17 over Ukraine in 2014,” Orion wrote via e-mail.
Though Russia said it trained Syrian personnel in the operation of the system, the degree of control that Moscow would give Damascus was unclear. With both Iran and Hezbollah operating in Syria on behalf of, and under the protection of, Damascus, granting the regime autonomy in the use of the new system carries clear risks.
“Should Russian crews man the new S-300, it would probably be operated under Moscow’s control,” Orion said. “Once under Syrian control, the system becomes a more serious concern and should it engage [Israeli Air Force] IAF (striking at Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targets in Syria) or [US Air Force] USAF targets, the probability of a counterstrike rises.”
It is unlikely that Iran and Hezbollah will be unaware of the advantages the S-300 affords Syrian forces, “Both are very likely to identify this window of opportunity, which may put all parties to the test quite soon,” Orion said.
“However, one may actually doubt whether the last incident indeed changed Russia’s interests and position on the Iranian entrenchment,” he said.
With the conflict in Syria assuming new contours, Russia and Iran, though ostensibly allies, increasingly find themselves competitors for influencing the war’s endgame. From Moscow’s perspective, despite deployment of the S-300, Tel Aviv remains a vital ally in the conflict.
“I currently assess that Russia will not shut the window on Israel’s action in Syria over the mid and long-term,” Orion said.