Russia’s ‘double bluff’ in Syria: S-300 deployments not seen as effective air defense

Following the downing of a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft last month in which Moscow blamed on Israel despite the plane being blown out of the sky by a Syrian Army air defense missile, the Kremlin made public its intention of delivering more sophisticated S-300 missile and air defense systems to Damascus.

Delivery of those systems occurred in recent days. The Associated Press reported, “[Russian Defense Minister] Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks that Russia has delivered four S-300 launchers along with radars and support vehicles. Speaking during a Security Council meeting chaired by President Vladimir Putin, Shoigu said it will take three months to train Syrian personnel to operate the system.”

Russia’s Tass news agency, however, put the number of delivered systems much higher. “On October 1, three battalion sets of S-300PM systems of eight launchers each were delivered to Syria,” a military source told Tass, as cited by the Times of Israel. In addition, the paper reported, the Kremlin also 300 missiles to Syria to arm the S-300s.

Separately, reports have noted that only four of the launchers, as reported by the AP, have been seen being off-loaded in Syria. There is also some question as to which version of S-300 Russia has delivered.

Analysis: Russia said it was transferring S-300 systems to Syria in response to the downing of the Il-20 and to provide Syria better means to defend the so-called “Iranian corridor” from Israeli airstrikes. 

As to the version that the Syrians have received, reports suggest that it could be the S-300PM. Notes the Jamestown Foundation: “Video and photographic images of the unloading of the S-300 SAM system in Damascus reveal a multifunctional radar station that belongs to the S-300PM2, with its communications-and-control system’s characteristic antenna shape. Nonetheless, none of the other images of the delivered S-300 equipment relate to the S-300PM2. They seem more consistent with the S-300PM or the S-300PS. According to Russian air-defense experts, the reason for this discrepancy may likely be that the transfer in question was, in fact, a ‘hybrid’ regimental system.”

Whichever version(s) of the S-300 that have been delivered, they are believed to have been transferred to Syria from Russian air defense units that recently received the modern S-400 air defense system.

Upon delivery of the systems, Shoigu claimed that by 20 October, a joint air-defense system in Syria will finally function alongside Russian air defense and that in three month’s time, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) officers would be fully trained in how to operate the S-300 systems. 

However, a number of things don’t add up. For one, the training time: Three months seems too soon, which means that the systems will be jointly operated by SAA and Russian officers and personnel. 

There are also problems with Russia’s narrative — the stated intent for transferring the S-300s in the first place. The Israeli air force frequently operates in the Iranian corridor, but Russia air defense experts are quick to note that it’s impossible to cover the several hundreds of kilometers that comprise the corridor with the number of S-300 systems delivered to Syria thus far. Even following the completion of the deployment of the “three regimental sets” of S-300s, they still won’t be able to stop all Israeli airstrikes, as the IDF will simply find workarounds.

Also, the S-300 PMs or S-300PM2s delivered to Syria are not capable of integrating with the most sophisticated Pantsir S1 anti-air missile and gun systems, which are effective against cruise missile strikes.

“Combined with some of the other issues involved, it seems that Moscow has used the S-300 system as a double bluff: its transfer to the SAA will not result in deterring the Israeli Air Force from conducting future strikes in Syria, nor will a full-fledged joint Russia-Syria air-defense system emerge,” the Jamestown Foundation concludes.

This makes sense given the gravity of the situation concerning Israel. PM Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed — and has acted on his claims — that Israel won’t allow Iran to solidify its positions inside Syria. It makes little sense, tactically, for Russia to seriously target Israel given that even Moscow understands that Iran’s presence in Syria is disruptive and a threat to Israeli national security. Vladimir Putin is also well aware that Israel also has no interest in targeting Russian assets inside Syria. It’s all about Iran (and Syria, too, if the Syrians get in the way).

Damascus could fix all of this by simply ejecting the Iranians, but Syrian President Bashar Assad isn’t likely to do that anytime soon given the assistance Tehran provided him during his country’s lengthy civil war. 

In the end, Moscow has provided Syria with some capability, but not nearly enough, it turns out, to dramatically upset the balance of power in the region and seriously threaten Israel.


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