People watch S-300 air defense missile systems launching missiles during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia, August 5, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/MAXIM SHEMETOV)
Airstrikes were reported in the early hours of Monday near Damascus and Homs, according to Syrian media. Syria has blamed Israel for the airstrikes. The airstrikes occurred just hours after satellite images from ImageSat International showed four Russian S-300 missile defense systems near Masyaf, not far from where the airstrikes occurred.
The S-300 was supplied to Syria by Russia in the fall of 2018 after an Israeli airstrike in Latakia led to Syrian air defense downing a Russian plane with an S-200. The weapon system was supplied by Russia as a message to Israel after Moscow condemned Israel for its airstrikes, which it said had led to the Syrian mistake and the downing of the plane.
However, over the last nine months, the system has not been declared operational. Things changed on June 30, when photos showed four of the S-300s and a deployed radar system. The radar has a detection range of several hundred kilometers and the missiles can allegedly intercept targets up to 200 km. away. The Masyaf area where the missiles were set up is only a few dozen kilometers from an area Syria said was hit by an airstrike on Monday morning.
This shows that airstrikes targeted an area right under the nose of the S-300. An S-200 missile was launched by Syrian air defense and flew several hundred kilometers all the way to northern Cyprus. If the system was operational, as some reports indicated, then why were airstrikes able to take place so close to the system? This also raises questions as to whether the airstrikes show that Syria’s air defense is still ineffective and whether they were designed to send this message. In the past, airstrikes were reduced following the anger in September from the Russian aircraft downing. In addition, Israel and Russia have held frequent discussions about Syria, and on Israel’s concerns about Iranian entrenchment.
Israel has said it does not want Iran building more bases or transferring weapons through Syria. According to the former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot in an interview with The New York Times, Israel carried out more than 1,000 strikes in the last several years.
Israel recently hosted the US National Security Advisor John Bolton and his Russian counterpart for a high level meeting. Discussions focused on Syria and the region.
The messages from Jerusalem are well known. Damascus also knows that by hosting Iranian bases and allowing continued Iranian entrenchment that this raises tensions.
The airstrikes on Monday were wide ranging, in an area over 160 km. in extent from Homs to Damascus. Their extent – and reports in Syria that they killed civilians – raises the stakes. They also appear to show that the S-300 system was either not effective or not yet turned on. It may be operational, but for whatever reason the Syrian regime and its Russian ally have chosen to keep the launchers in the same place, visible to satellites. This is also a message by the Syrian regime that the launchers are out in the open and that everyone knows where they are. With four launchers, the Syrians have the capacity to track up to one hundred targets and ostensibly strike at many of those targets simultaneously with the system.
The July 1 airstrikes may be a watershed or evidence of more to come. What they clearly show is that Syria is still struggling to use its more advanced air defense system, or is wary of even turning it on and risking it being harmed. For instance, according to a report at Ynet in May, an Iranian-deployed 3rd Khordad system – which was flown into T-4 base – was waiting to be unpacked in April when it was hit by an airstrike. The 3rd Khordad is similar to the S-300 in some ways and poses a threat. The S-300s near Masyaf were not damaged on July 1, according to reports.
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