On 2 October, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system was delivered to Syria. The official report by Shoigu was given during a meeting of Russian policymakers broadcasted by Rossiya 24 TV. “The work was finished a day ago,” Shoigu said. He also added that it will take three months to train Syrian personnel to operate the system.
The delivery of S-300 batteries to Syria, one of the Russian military’s most advanced systems, came to pass despite strong pressure from both Israel and the United States. The transfer of the anti-aircraft system also flies in the face of a 2013 commitment by Russia to not supply Syria with weapons platforms. “In 2013, we agreed to stop the transfer of the system to Syria due to an Israeli request. However, through no fault of our own, the situation has changed,” Defense Minister Shoigu stressed.
Shoigu did not clarify exactly what was meant by “the situation has changed” but left a less than subtle hint. The S-300 deployment is intended to “calm down some hotheads” whose actions “pose a threat to our troops,” said Shoigu in the same announcement. As Israel is the only foreign actor targeting sites in Syria from the air as of late, there aren’t too many options as to whom the Russian defense minister was referring to.
The decision to deliver the modern defense system was reached following the shooting down of a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft, which was accidentally hit by a Syrian missile on 17 September. The missile destroyed the aircraft and killed all fifteen Russian military personnel on board. Moscow said Israel was to blame for the incident as the Il-20 had been caught in the crossfire of Syria’s air defenses targeting four Israeli F-16 jets that were heading toward objectives in northwestern Syria. The Israeli military said Syria’s indiscriminate air defense fire was the cause of the incident.
Thus Russia was forced into a bit of a predicament. While President Putin has implied in the past that he would not interfere with Israel’s activities in Syria, he cannot stop the Syrians from trying to protect their own airspace. If Syria is going to be shooting missiles into the same skies that Russian military aircraft are flying through, Putin needed to ensure those missiles would not hit the wrong targets—as they did last month. The S-300 system, and the more advanced S-400, have been deployed in Syria since 2016. Up until now though, the Russian army has used them to protect its own aircraft and Russian assets in Syria. Russia’s decision to supply the system means it will be handed over to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Of course less drastic options were open to Putin. He could have demanded Jerusalem coordinate with Moscow before an Israeli strike was launched. Perhaps he did. Perhaps Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected that demand out of concerns that Russia would tip off the Syrians before future strikes. If that is what happened —not an altogether outlandish scenario— this would have essentially forced Russia’s hand.
All of that is of course conjecture. The question for the moment is: Now what? Or, put more technically: How does this change the strategic landscape in Syria?
Up until this point, enemies of Syria and Iran (primarily Israel) could pretty much conduct air operations over Syrian airspace unabated. Now they have to deal with a fairly advanced Russian air defense system. Highlighting this concern, the United States immediately condemned the transfer of the S-300. The Trump administration has called the Russian move to arm the Syrian military “a serious escalation.” State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert earlier this week said she could not independently confirm that Russia had delivered the system to Syria, but said it would be a “concern” if it had. “I hope that they did not,” Nauert told reporters when asked about the Russian announcement during a Washington DC press conference. “That would be sort of a serious escalation.”
Israel on its part has made it clear it will not be deterred by the S-300 deployment. “We have not changed our strategic line on Iran,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said on Tuesday in response to the delivery of the system. “We will not allow Iran to open up a third front against us. We will take actions as required,” he told Israel Radio. Israel has been relatively quiet about its activities in Syria over the past several years, activities that have been growing in frequency ever since the civil war began to escalate and enemies of Israel began entrenching themselves in the country—ISIS and Iran, to name two. But Israeli leaders have recently become more open about their agenda in Syria. Reports from senior policymakers not long ago reported that 200 Israeli operations have been executed in the country over the past two years.
Also it is important to keep in mind that it’s not like Israel was caught completely off guard by the S-300 arriving in Syria. Pretty much since its creation, Israel had to plan for facing Russian-manufactured weapons systems weather they by T-class tanks or MiG model fighter jets. Over three years ago Israel reportedly began training for the possibility of facing the S-300. Reportedly, Israeli Air Force pilots conducted various drills to this end in a 2015 exercise in Greece. The deployment of the system by the Russians back in 2016 was another motivation for Israel to factor in the S-300 into its operational plans. So the likelihood of Israel having strategies to overcome the system is high.
Additionally, the recent procurement by Israel of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters is also an important element to consider. In a recent interview regarding the Syrian acquisition of the S-300, Tzachi Hanegbi, the country’s regional cooperation minister and a member of its security cabinet, was asked if the new system would hinder Israel’s capability of targeting Iranian assets in Syria. Hanegbi’s answer: “Unequivocally, no.” Referring to the F-35s —that Israel has no doubt modified to be even more effective— Hanegbi said: “You know that we have stealth fighters, the best planes in the world. These batteries are not even able to detect them.”