by Oded Granot
Despite potential limitations on Israel's operational freedom in Syria, the Israeli Air Force already has an answer to the advanced defense systems Russia may give Syria.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's response to the recent U.S.-led strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical arsenal was delivered Wednesday in the form of a laconic statement by Moscow's Defense Ministry, saying that Russia will "soon" provide Syria with its advanced S-300 missile defense system.
The Russian statement was expected and was very much a part of the cold war now waged between Washington and Moscow, aggravated by the April 14 strike. While it is doubtful that the barrage of Tomahawk missiles fired on Syria would deter Assad from using chemical weapons in the future, the strike was an affront to Putin. It illustrated him as unable to defend his ally, Assad, from the West and dented his international prestige.
This may appear as yet another time in which the U.S. and Russia lock horns. But the delivery of advanced missile defense systems to Syria is also likely to pose an issue for the Israeli Air Force with respect to maintaining Israel's stated red lines in Syria, namely preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily there and preventing the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The concerns are justified, but three points must be made regarding this defense system:
- Russia may have said it would supply Assad with S-300 missiles, but it has yet to do so and Moscow officials on Wednesday strongly denied Syria's assertion that it was already in possession of these missiles.
- The S-300 is an effective anti-aircraft defense system but it is, to a large extent, outdated and Russia has ceased its production about two years ago. The last system of this type was supplied to the Iranians, and Assad stands to receive either the batteries the Russians already have in Syria or ones decommissioned by the Russian military.
- According to foreign reports, and despite the potential restrictions on the IAF's operational freedom in Syria, the IAF already has an operational response to S-300 missiles – if and when Israel may need to mount one.
The crux of the matter here has less to do with the anti-aircraft missile system and more to do with the system of understandings between Israel and Russia. While Russia has warned Israel against targeting S-300 batteries, Israel asserted that it would not hesitate to do so if it was used against its forces. Public rhetoric aside, the two countries have maintained effective communications that have already proved they can eliminate danger.
However, the pace of regional events over the past few weeks has accelerated so rapidly that the winds may change at any minute. U.S. President Donald Trump decision on the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran is looming and come May 12, if the U.S. exits the accord, an attempt by Iran to retaliate on the April 9 strike on the T4 air base in Homs or another Israeli mission to stop weapons shipments to Hezbollah could prompt a security escalation that no one wants.
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