Can Israel stop Russia’s delivery of the S-300 to Syria?

The S-300 was the Israel Air Force’s nightmare. One of the most advanced multi-target anti-aircraft-missile systems in the world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017 (photo credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017
In October 2007, just a month after Israel bombed a nuclear reactor that Bashar Assad was secretly constructing in northeast Syria, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert picked up the phone and called the Kremlin.
Secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and defense secretary Robert Gates were in Moscow for talks with Vladimir Putin about the deployment of NATO missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Olmert was afraid that the top American officials would use their meeting to also update the Russian leader about the Israeli strike – how it had discovered the reactor, what exactly it was, and why military action was taken. Olmert wanted to speak to him first.
When Putin got on the line, Olmert asked when they could meet. “It’s important that we speak face-to-face as soon as possible,” he said.
“Come tomorrow,” Putin replied. Olmert said he couldn’t, telling the Russian leader that arranging a flight and the necessary security detail would be impossible to get done in just one day.
In that case, Putin said, the visit would need to wait a few more days until he returned to Russia from a planned state visit to Iran. The two set a date, but Olmert wasn’t done. If he already had Putin on the phone on the eve of talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, there were other issues to discuss.
At the time, Israel was extremely concerned with Russia’s growing relationship with Iran – Moscow had announced plans to supply Iran with the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system as well as the fuel it needed to activate its nuclear reactor in Bushehr.
The S-300 was the Israel Air Force’s nightmare. One of the most advanced multi-target anti-aircraft-missile systems in the world, the S-300 has the reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously while engaging up to 12 at the same time from hundreds of kilometers away.
Its deployment in Iran, senior IAF officers warned, would undermine a possible future Israeli operation to destroy the country’s nuclear facilities, and they were urging Olmert to do everything possible to stop the delivery of the S-300. Other officials were slightly less concerned, and claimed that if and when the S-300s were delivered, Israel would adapt, and develop new ways – tactics and technology – to either neutralize it or work around it. With Putin on the phone on the eve of a visit to Iran, Olmert had to try to stop the deal.
A state in possession of these kinds of missiles, the Israeli prime minister told Putin, would feel emboldened and immune to international pressure. The S-300, he said, would give Iran the confidence to become even more aggressive toward other countries in the Middle East.
“Don’t give it to them,” Olmert said. Putin was noncommittal but promised Olmert to give the issue some careful thought.
This exchange took place 11 years ago, in October 2007. At the time, it worked. Together with pressure from the US, Israel succeeded in stopping the deal.
But even that had its limits. After the P5+1 signed its landmark nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, Putin lifted the ban on the delivery of the S-300. In 2016, Iran announced that it had received all of the components it needed, and a year later the Revolutionary Guards said that the S-300 was now fully operational.
Does that mean that Israel will no longer be able to attack Iran if it feels one day that it needs to? Probably not. According to some foreign sources, the IAF has trained over countries which are in possession of the S-300 and has developed ways to overcome the system.
In addition, while surface-to-air missile systems threaten aircraft, there is no such thing as 100% hermetic protection. Israel is in the process of operationalizing its growing fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets. The whole purpose of purchasing these expensive planes was so they could operate freely in skies threatened by advanced systems like the S-300.
This is an important story to keep in mind after Russia announced this week that it plans to once again supply the S-300 to another one of Israel’s enemies. The excuse this time was the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane last week over Syria, shortly after the Israel Air Force struck Irani- an targets along the Syrian coast. Russia accused Israel of using its plane to shield its aircraft from radar detection, leading Syria to mistakenly shoot down the Russian plane. Israel’s claims that its planes were no longer in the area when Syria fired its missile have had little influence back in Moscow.
And even though Russia might simply be using the downing of its plane as an excuse to beef up the Syrian military with advanced weapon systems, as seen with the Iran case, there is only so much Israel can do to stop it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with President Donald Trump about the issue during their meeting on Wednesday in New York. What leverage Trump has over Putin remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, Syria is different than Iran. The main problem is Syria’s proximity to Israel. While the S-300 in Iran would have consequences in the planning of a future Israeli air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, it would only become a problem if Israel decided to fly to Iran for an attack. Syria is a different story.
With a range of up to 250 kilometers, an S-300 battery stationed in Syria could potentially threaten any plane approaching Israel for landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. While it’s extremely unlikely that Syria would ever shoot down a civilian aircraft – it would face a disproportional retaliation from Israel – these kinds of things have happened in the past. Malaysian Flight 17 – shot down by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine in 2014 – is one recent example.
More immediate will be the impact the deployment of the S-300 will have on continued IAF operations over Syria. Israel has insisted that it has a right to attack Iranian positions in Syria and weapons en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah, on the other hand, has insisted that it will continue to smuggle in the weapons. What will Israel do the next time it receives intelligence about an arms shipment moving near Russian forces? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, there might be a lesson in humility here for Israel.
Since Russia started deploying its military forces in Syria in 2015, Israel has mostly been careful when talking about its own operations across the border. Netanyahu traveled frequently to Moscow for talks with Putin and succeeded in convincing the Russian leader to allow Israel to retain operational freedom over Syria against Iranian or Hezbollah targets.
The IDF and the Russian military established a coordination and deconfliction mechanism, and a special hotline was installed in the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, connecting Israeli officers directly with their Russian counterparts stationed in Latakia. For most of the last few years it seemed that problems were resolved quickly and effectively.
Earlier this month, though, the IDF announced proudly that it had struck over 200 targets in Syria and fired more than 800 missiles and mortar shells into the country in the last year-and-a-half. The news was impressive but also surprising.
For most of the last few years, Israel has remained quiet when acting over Syria, refraining from taking responsibility for strikes or denying its involvement. It simply did not say anything unless it had no choice, like in February, when an Israeli F-16 was shot down after bombing targets in Syria.
But now, Israel was taking credit for 200 bombings in the span of just 18 months. Russia knew about all of these strikes, but it didn’t need an official IDF announcement that could be interpreted as Moscow being weak and not knowing how to protect Assad or its own interests in Syria.
Did that announcement contribute to the current crisis? It’s possible. What is sure is that moving forward, Israel’s hands will be tied more than in the past. Being quiet shouldn’t be too hard. The next test over Syria will undoubtedly come soon.