Russia’s S-300 Delivery Shows Israel Who’s In Charge, But Not Aimed At Hurting Relations, Analysts
Russia’s decision to boost Syrian air defenses in response to the downing of an Il-20 plane amid an Israeli raid is meant to sting, but not pose a serious threat to Israel’s national security, experts told RT.
Last week, a Russian Il-20 electronic warfare plane with 15 crew on board was shot down off Syria’s coast by a Syrian anti-air missile fired in response to an Israeli air raid. The raid targeted the Latakia province, which houses a Russian airbase.
Moscow accused Israel of failing to warn the Russian military of its impending attack in time to move the landing aircraft out of harm’s way. On Monday, the Russian military said they would boost Syrian air defenses in several ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.
“It was inevitable that at some point [Israel] would cross that line in its special relationship with Russia and would go a bit too far,” said Beirut-based journalist Martin Jay.
“The deal that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin gave to Israel was incredible. It [not only] allowed Israel to make air strikes with impunity across the country on targets that it believed to be Hezbollah weapons factories or Iranian military installations.”
Russia had also promised to keep pro-Iranian militias away from Syria’s border with Israel and froze a planned delivery of an S-300 long-range air defense system to the Syrian armed forces. This deal has now been unfrozen and is to be completed within two weeks, Moscow has announced.
“I think all bets are off now. Russia is showing Israel who is in charge and that it won’t take any more nonsense,” Jay told RT.
The deployment of the S-300 would reduce Israel’s ability to strike targets in Syria, although how much would depend on the number of batteries and the skill of the crews that would man them, said Nikolay Surkov, a senior researcher at the Moscow-based International Institute for World Economy and International Relations. Should Israel take risks or use more costly weapon systems, it may be able to conduct air strikes in Syria even after the planned upgrade, he said.
“They will have to use more assets, use armed drones and cruise missiles as opposed to fighter jets,” he said. “At least that’s what they told me when we discussed a possible delivery of the S-300 a few years ago… Of course, this would be more difficult, more costly and more risky.”
The Russian expert believes that Israel may tolerate losses during sorties in Syria up to a point, possibly even ramping up attacks by way of retaliation, as was the case with the loss of a fighter jet in February. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown air war in southern Syria not involving Russia directly.
“Russia has made its response and showed Israel how displeased it is. But Russia and Israel are partners, and neither side wishes to endanger this partnership. I believe a way forward that would satisfy both parties would be found. The Israelis would be more cautious in the future while Russia would refrain from further escalation,” Surkov predicted. “At the moment, we don’t have a confrontation here, just mutual complaints.”
Similar messages, which signal Russia’s willingness to prevent the conflict with Israel from spiraling out of control, came from Moscow after the Defense Ministry’s statement. The Kremlin stressed that the measures taken by the military are not aimed at any third parties while the Foreign Ministry said Russia’s relations with Israel are too “massive and comprehensive” to be significantly hurt by the fallout from the Il-20 incident.
But Jay, the Lebanon-based journalist, pointed out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be limited by pressure at home in how he can deal with the situation.
“He has been resolving all the allegations of corruption through his political fortitude. He is doing really well at the moment, but this could be a game changer,” he said.
Russia’s announcement on Monday that it would be upgrading Syria’s air defenses with its formidable S-300 system within two weeks marked the latest nadir in Israel’s rapidly spiraling relationship with Moscow since the downing by Syria of a Russian spy plane off the Syrian coast last week.
In addition to supplying Syria with the S-300, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also said Monday that Russia would “jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communication systems of combat aircraft attacking targets in Syria.”
But the greater threat is not the specific tactical hurdle that the system poses for the Israeli Air Force, but rather that this episode could lead to a breakdown of Israel’s relationship with Russia. Not since the 1960s and 1970s has Israel had to contend with an antagonistic Moscow actively working against Israeli interests. Though Russia today indeed supplies weapons to many of Israel’s enemies - including S-300 batteries to Israel’s arch-nemesis Iran - the general understanding in Israel is that this isn’t personal, it’s business, the Times of Israel reports.
The current crisis has the potential to change that, depending on how it is handled by Israel, Russia and the United States. Though the actions of Russia are some of the most openly hostile toward Israel since the end of the Cold War, they are still reversible, at least to some degree.
For over five years, Russian has been threatening to sell the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, but has backed off each time at the behest of the Israeli, and sometimes the American, government. The long-range S-300 - with an operational radius of 250 kilometers (150 miles), according to Russia - is a far more advanced form of the S-200 air defense system that Syria currently employs.
For now, Moscow has said it will supply two to four S-300 batteries to Syria, but is prepared to deliver more if necessary. According to Russian media, the systems will be set up on Syria’s western coast and in its southwest, near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, which are the two areas from which the IAF would be most likely to conduct airstrikes.
Russia has yet to indicate which model of S-300 it intends to sell Syria; there are several, each with its own range of capabilities. Even the lowest quality model’s radar would be able to monitor flights around northern Israel - and potentially civilian flights in and out of Ben Gurion International Airport, depending on where the system is placed in Syria.
For Israel, the S-300 would represent a significant but not insurmountable obstacle in Syria, where it routinely bombs Iranian and Hezbollah facilities and weapons caches. While the S-300, known by NATO as the SA-10, is far more powerful than Syria’s current long-range anti-aircraft system, the S-200 or SA-5, the Israeli Air Force has had decades to prepare for it.
A number of Israeli allies operate the air defense system. The IAF has reportedly trained against S-300 batteries that once belonged to Cyprus, but are now owned by Greece, during joint aerial exercises over the years.
Israel is also the proud owner of a growing fleet of F-35 fighter jets, a model whose raison d’être is stealth. These fifth-generation jets have already been used operationally, the IAF said earlier this year, the paper says.
And the Israeli Air Force is also famed for its own electronic warfare capabilities. Indeed, in the 1982 first Lebanon War, the IAF used radar jamming against Syria’s Soviet-supplied air defenses, destroying 29 of the country’s 30 anti-aircraft batteries.
Israeli also reportedly used this type of technology in its attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor in 2007, blocking the Syrian military’s air defenses during the raid. But a Russia-supplied S-300 system is not only an operational challenge - it is a geopolitical one as well.
Though in his announcement Russian defense minister Shoigu said Syrian teams had been training to operate the S-300 system, it was not immediately clear if the batteries would also be staffed by Russian military personnel. If they were, this would make an Israeli decision to destroy Syrian S-300 batteries far more complicated, requiring the direct and intentional targeting of Russian forces.
Russia’s plan to use electronic warfare against Israeli “hotheads” - per Shoigu - serves as yet another obstacle and point of consideration for the Israeli Air Force. According to Russian media, these electronic warfare systems will create a “radioelectonic dome” with a radius of hundreds of kilometers around western Syria and the Mediterranean coast, which would affect not only Israeli planes but also American and French navy ships, as well as civilian planes in the area.
Here too, the Israeli military would likely have a number of technological and operational means to overcome this challenge, but the top brass would have to weigh the use of those measures against the value of the target. Earlier this year, when Russia was again threatening to arm Syria with the S-300, Israeli officials said the IAF was prepared to target any anti-aircraft system that fires at its planes, regardless of who supplied it or who was operating it.
“One thing needs to be clear: If someone shoots at our planes, we will destroy them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an S-300 or an S-700,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the time. While the IAF may be capable of getting around Russian radar jamming and would be well within its rights to destroy a Russia-supplied S-300 battery that fires on its planes, such acts would run the risk of further alienating Moscow and pushing the two countries further to the brink of a full diplomatic break, the paper said.