Syria’s S-300 Gift From Russia

Recently satellite imagery revealed what Russia is calling a “radical change” in its Syria policy: delivering the S-300 to bolster Bashar al-Assad’s air defenses against Israel. This will not make Israel’s ongoing air campaign against Iran in Syria any easier. However, this should not obscure the biggest consequence of the transfer, which will be to embolden Tehran and raise the risk of major conflict between Israel and Iran.

Moscow gave Damascus the S-300 after Syrian air defenses accidentally downed a Russian aircraft on September 17. Those defenses were attempting to strike Israeli aircraft carrying out a mission against Iran in Syria. The Syrian forces were using an antiquated Russian S-200 system; the more advanced S-300 should give Syria greater technical capabilities to target Israeli aircraft.

The S-300 transfer is also a political move. It shows Moscow’s commitment to the Assad regime and the permanence of its own Middle East footprint, which President Vladimir Putin views as critical for staking Russia’s renewed claim to great-power status.

Even as the S-300 transfer reinforces Syria’s air defenses and political ties to Russia, it will not block Israel’s ability to conduct missions over Syria.

Russia was already busily upgrading Syria’s existing air defense radars and missiles well before the S-300 transfer, which represents the latest in this series of upgrades. Moreover, for the past year, Israel has already operated in the face of concerted Syrian efforts to intercept its aircraft with these upgraded systems; the September 17 incident shows just how aggressive Syrian air defenses have become. Israel has been fairly successful when it targets these systems, eliminating many Syrian air defenses in separate series of attacks in February and May – at a total cost of just one of its aircraft.

Indeed, Israel has prepared specifically to operate against the S-300. Its pilots reportedly have trained against the system in exercises with Greece since 2015 and more recently in Ukraine. In addition, its stealth F-35 aircraft are designed to suppress and destroy air defenses just like the S-300. Prime Minister Netanyahu and others have made clear the S-300 will not deter Israel from enforcing its redlines in Syria.

Israel also enjoys a solid track record overcoming purportedly formidable defenses. In 1982 it obliterated Syria’s highly advanced, Soviet-supplied air defense network in Lebanon in a day. In 2007, it likewise used sophisticated electronic warfare to evade Syria’s air defenses and destroy Assad’s suspected nuclear reactor.

Nor does the S-300 transfer appear to signal any major change in Russia’s ambivalence toward Israel’s campaign. Moscow has no stake in Tehran’s ambition to dominate postwar Syria and use the country as another front against Israel. And it has not lifted a finger when Israel targets Assad’s air defenses in retaliation for their firing on Israeli aircraft operating against Iran.

Notably, Putin reportedly has demanded more advance warning of Israeli airstrikes in Syria but not their termination. Both before and after Moscow announced the transfer; he also said all foreign forces, including Iran’s, eventually must leave Syria.

In this light, the S-300 reflects and reinforces Moscow’s fundamental interest in helping secure the Assad regime, rather than create new opportunities for Tehran to expand its destabilizing presence in the country.

Therein lies the potential danger. Statements from Iranian leadership suggest Tehran perceives the S-300 transfer as a deterrent or brake on Israeli action against it in Syria, despite Israel retaining its ability and determination to continue its campaign. Tehran’s misperceptions could accelerate the two countries’ collision course for war.

Both sides understand this conflict likely will include Hezbollah in Lebanon and its 120,000 rockets and missiles. Such a conflagration would be unlike any recent clash in the region and would deal a severe blow to the Trump Administration’s evolving efforts to push back against Iranian aggression. It could even threaten Israel’s strategic and economic viability.

To help forestall the threat of such conflict, the United States can bolster Israel’s ability to operate in Syria and send a clear deterrent message to Iran. It should frontload the 2016 ten-year agreement on defense assistance to Israel, without adding a cent to the overall agreement. Israel could then acquire more quickly the U.S. systems it needs now to operate effectively in Syria, including additional F-35 squadrons, precision munitions, and electronic warfare UAVs, and prepare for future conflict with Iran and Hezbollah.

This could go a long way to correcting Iran’s misperceptions that Syria’s acquisition of the S-300 is a game-changer in Tehran’s favor. By supporting Israel’s ongoing efforts to defend itself, and by extension U.S. interests, the United States can reduce the risks and costs of a major escalation in Syria.

Originally appeared in Real Clear Defense on November 21, 2018.