The Russian government will reportedly supply Syria with a more modern air defense system, the S-300, following the downing of an Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft last week that killed 15 Russian airmen and pilots.
The friendly fire incident occurred when a Syrian air defense battery equipped with an older, Soviet-era S-200 missile system, locked onto the Russian plane by mistake as Israeli F-16 fighters approached to attack a site where Iranian forces were reportedly transferring weapons to Hezbollah fighters.
Initially, Russia blamed the shoot-down on Israel, claiming the IDF jets used the Il-20 as “cover” for their attack, pushing the larger reconnaissance plane into the line of fire. Israel has denied that and even sent an air force delegation to Moscow with intelligence to back up the claim.
After the Russian foreign ministry blamed the attack on Israel, President Vladimir Putin offered a more conciliatory tone, claiming the downing was the result of a “chain of tragic, fatal circumstances” in the crowded skies over Syria.
However, on Sunday the Russian military repeated the earlier foreign ministry accusations against Israel.
A statement from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that Moscow would ship the S-300 systems to Damascus within two weeks. Earlier in Syria’s civil war, the Kremlin suspended shipments of S-300 systems that Israel claimed would be used against its planes.
Analysis: The S-200 (NATO designate SA-5 Gammon (initially Tallinn) is a very long range missile designed in the 1960s to defend wide areas against enemy bombers. It does come equipped with a fire control radar that can be linked to other systems. Over its Soviet-era service life, the S-200 was produced in several upgraded versions.
The Syrian government first began receiving S-200 systems around 1983. By the time the civil war began, the Syrian army still operated several S-200 sites, but on at least one occasion, rebels overran one site that contained a fire control radar in disrepair. Beginning in 2015 after Russia joined the war on the side of Syria, efforts were made to rehabilitate these systems. In November 2016, Defense Minister Shoigu announced that Syria’s S-200s had been restored.
Thoughout 2017 several were fired at Israeli aircraft, and while the Syrians claimed to have downed an Israeli fighter and a drone at one point, the Israel Defense Force denounced the claim as “total lies.” But in February of this year, Syrian air defense forces did manage to down an IDF F-16I Sufa with an S-200 missile.
The S-300 (NATO designate SA-10 Grumble, SA-12 Giant/Gladiator, SA-20 Gargoyle) is a Soviet-turned-Russian design that is a substantial upgrade from the S-200. It was first deployed in 1979 to protect vital industrial infrastructure and has undergone many upgrades since. One of the upgrades includes the system’s ability to better distinguish targets at greater distances. It’s assumed that the systems Russia will supply are in top functioning condition.
The fielding of what experts consider one of the most potent air defense systems in existence today is seen as being in direct defiance of Israel’s wishes. We noted that, following the initial reporting of the Il-20 downing, Putin would not tuck tail and run out of Syria — the Russian navy port at Tartus is far too important, strategically, for Moscow. Rather, we said, he would not only stay but make it much more difficult and potentially costly for Israel to operate in Syria.
And that’s exactly what he’s doing.
The Russians aren’t leaving Syria. The Israelis aren’t going to allow the Iranians free reign inside Syria to set up bases it can use to attack the Jewish state or to arm its proxy Hezbollah. While Putin may not be seeking conflict with Israel, he’s also not doing enough to thwart Iranian military activity inside the country.
Unless he does that, the likelihood that Russia-supplied air defense systems will produce Israeli casualties in the near future increases dramatically.