Analysis: Air strikes on the S-300? Not so fast

It's unclear what, if anything has arrived in Syria from Russia.

By
May 30, 2013 23:04
2 minute read.
Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system

Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The regime of Bashar Assad is not known for its credibility, having made many false or utterly distorted claims to suit its agenda.

Peddling falsehoods is a vital aspect of the regime’s survival strategy.

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The Syrian president boasted on Thursday to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station that the first shipment of the advanced Russian S-300 air defense system has arrived in his country, but the claim, like so many others from Syria, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

It suits Assad to take up a confrontational pose with Israel, without entering into an actual conflict with it (which could spell the end of his regime). This is why Assad on Thursday threatened Jerusalem with immediate retaliation for any future air strikes.

It remains unclear what, if anything has arrived in Syria from Russia, and whether the shipment contains S-300 interceptor missiles, or other basic components that need to be assembled before the system can be switched on.

As Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently noted, Syria would require considerable time before it could master the S- 300 air defense system. It needs to train Syrian personnel to use it. Russian technicians are unlikely to operate the batteries on behalf of Assad, as they’d be placing themselves at very high risk.

Nevertheless, Assad’s message contains a declaration of intent to eventually cross an Israeli red line on arms proliferation, and this is a serious development which has a real potential to spark a confrontation.

There are several reasons why Israel has no intention of allowing Syria to set up S-300 batteries.

With its sophisticated radars and range of 200 kilometers, the S-300 can target civilian air traffic in northern Israel, hamper Israel Air Force aircraft flying over the Galilee or the Golan Heights, and disrupt IAF surveillance flights over Lebanon to monitor Hezbollah.

The system can also disrupt Israeli efforts to intercept the transit of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah through Syria.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Assad might be tempted to send S-300 batteries to Hezbollah or Iran.

Despite being neck deep in the bloody Syrian war, Hezbollah continues to prepare itself for war with Israel, and obtaining the S-300 would boost its confidence to challenge the IAF.

A more confident Hezbollah might be tempted to resume cross-border attacks on Israel, which in turn could quickly drag the region to war.

The S-300 in Iranian hands will complicate what is already a very challenging potential mission: Striking Iran’s nuclear sites.

In light of these factors, when might Israel take action? Strikes might be ordered against components of the batteries in transit on Syrian soil. Alternatively, Israel might bide its time and attack just before the batteries go online.

It’s worth remembering that Israel possesses advanced electronic warfare capabilities. As one source from the IDF’s Electronic Warfare Section told The Jerusalem Post last month, “The government instructed us to prepare and know how to operate in every operational arena.”

Assad is surely aware that Israel won’t wait for the batteries to become operational, and may therefore choose not to cross that line at all.

Behind closed doors, it is safe to assume, diplomatic pressure is being applied on Moscow to refrain from taking a step that can further destabilize an explosive region.


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