Russian Military Aid to Syria: Burning Questions and Answers

What are the new missile systems Russia is supplying to the Assad regime and how will they affect the region? Anshel Pfeffer breaks it down.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Russia plans to arm Syrian government with S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.
Russia plans to arm Syrian government with S-300 anti-aircraft missile system.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

What are the new missile systems that Russia is reportedly supplying to Syria?

Two systems. One, the S-300, is an advanced version of the air-defense system originally designed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and further developed in the 1990s. The S-300 has several advantages over the older Soviet-era anti-air batteries Syria already uses. First, the range of its radar and missiles allows it to hit targets at ranges of up to 200 kilometers. Second, the system uses different types of radar and command-and-control systems, which allow it to "engage" dozens of targets simultaneously. In addition, the system is fully mobile, carried on heavy road vehicles, making it harder to detect and destroy.

There were a number of reports in recent years regarding a possible delivery of S-300 batteries to both Syria and Iran, but the Russians responded to Israeli and American requests and froze the deal. Now they are speaking of "completing the deal" though they have yet to clarify when exactly they plan to ship the two batteries ordered to Syria.

The second system is the P-800 Yakhont, an anti-shipping cruise missile that entered Russian service about 13 years ago. The Yakhont is capable of flying at more than twice the speed of sound and delivering a 250 kg warhead against targets at sea at ranges of up to 300 kilometers.

In 2011, Russia already supplied Syria with two coastal-defense batteries, including 72 Yakhont missiles; now it is talking about supplying an advanced radar, which would greatly improve their accuracy.

What will the new missile systems change in the region?

The presence of these systems in Syria will make it more difficult (but not impossible) for Israel or any Western army to carry out air strikes on Syrian targets or to bombard or invade it by sea.

The S-300 will also threaten fighter jets using stand-off missiles (precision munitions that are launched at a distance of 40-50 kilometers from the target, enabling the fighter to evade most anti-aircraft systems) used by Israel, the United States and other air forces. The system also has a limited ability to hit ballistic missiles.

The Yakhont could limit the operations of Israeli and Western warships off the coast of Syria and make a sea-borne operation against it or Lebanon much more risky. The long range of the cruise missile could also threaten Israeli offshore rigs drilling in natural gas fields.

Can Israel's military deal with these missiles?

Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, the former commander of the army's Military Intelligence said over the weekend that the Israel Air Force can deal with the S-300. There have been reports in the foreign press that Israeli pilots have trained against S-300 systems used by allies such as Cyprus, Greece and Azerbaijan, and developed evasion tactics. Israel carried out at least three major strikes against Syria in recent years and succeeded in breaching Syria's significant anti-aircraft defenses. If the S-300 is indeed added to these systems, it would make a future mission more difficult but not thwart it. (The possible supply of the S-300 to Iran would be more problematic as the IAF cannot send a large number of fighter and electronic-warfare planes to distant Iran as it can to neighboring Syria.)

At sea, the Israel Navy has greatly upgraded its missile defense capabilities since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when a Chinese anti-shipping missile fired from the Lebanese coast by Iranian Revolutionary Guards hit INS Hanit. Among other innovations, Israeli missile boats are now equipped with the Barak8 anti-missile system. Yakhont would add a new threat to the naval battlefield but not one that would prevent Israeli ships from operating near the Syrian shore.

What are the chances the missiles will actually be supplied to the Assad regime?

Syria already has the Yakhont, which is most likely stationed around the port of Tartus on the Mediterranean coast. Since this is the heart of the relatively calm Alawite region, it is likely that the system is already fully operational and there are probably Russian technicians and officers there to advise Syrian forces on their use. The Russian presence, however, may limit the use of the missiles by the Syrians.

As for the S-300, the situation is murkier. Senior Russian officials have said in recent days that they plan to complete the deal, which was signed in 2007 and suspended in 2010. It is unclear though where the batteries will come from since the company manufacturing the S-300 announced last year it is shutting down the assembly line. Russia could supply Syria with used batteries from its own armed forces.

The critical issue is the capability of the Syrian army, which has been seriously degraded by two years of civil war and tens of thousands of defections – and even before the war, it lacked the resources to put an advanced system that includes three different kinds of radar to operational use in a relevant time frame. It is hard to see the Syrians carry out that type of technological mission in their current state. One possible solution would be supplying the S-300 with a team of Russian operators and "advisers" (which would also give the batteries an insurance of sorts from bombing), but it is highly unlikely that Russia would endanger its officers in the Syrian warzone.

So why is there such a high level of concern over these missiles?

Well, it isn't entirely clear why Israel has made such a fuss about them in recent days or whether Benjamin Netanyahu's rushed visit to President Vladimir Putin was justified, or even had much chance of success. (According to some reports, it was Putin who summoned Netanyahu to warn him over further strikes against Syria).

It is highly likely that a lot of what we have been hearing over the last few days has been spin serving various agendas. Netanyahu, like many others in the Israeli government and defense establishment, is extremely worried that jihadist rebels will take over Syria and that they, or Assad's allies Hezbollah, will obtain advanced and chemical weapons. Despite the massacre of Syrian citizens, some in Israel seem to prefer that the Assad regime hold on for as long as possible. The news of the missile supplies could strengthen Assad's hand by underscoring the fact that he is still receiving significant Russian backing.

The reported presence of advanced missiles in Syria will also boost the case of those in Washington who continue to oppose military intervention. They have argued for a while that Syria possesses much stronger air and sea defenses than the Gadhafi regime did in Libya, and that, therefore, an attack could be extremely costly. The recent strikes attributed to Israel have eroded this argument, but the appearance of the S-300 in the region could bolster them again.

Of course, those with the most to gain from the recent reports (besides the Assad regime naturally) are the Russians, who want to demonstrate to the West (and Israel) that they have not given up on Assad and that as far as they are concerned, a Western strike against him also would be an attack on Russia's interests.

But why are the Russians still backing Assad?

The reports on possible missile shipments are part of a wider move by Russia to show its support for Assad. This includes a large naval exercise in which 11 Russian warships have converged in recent days in the eastern Mediterranean, not far from Syria's shore. It is the Russian Navy's largest maneuver in the Mediterranean since the fall of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.

The Russians have a clear interest in Assad's survival. He is the last secular head of state in the Arab world who isn't considered an ally of the U.S. administration or a supporter of radical Islamist movements that are also threatening Russia's eastern provinces. Assad is the last recognizable agent of Russian influence in the Middle East, and despite his closeness to the Iranian-Shia axis over the past decade, his current dire situation puts him at Moscow's mercy.

The Russian Navy has a long-term lease for use of Syria's Tartus port and is the only Russian military presence currently in the Mediterranean basin. Even if the regime in Damascus falls, an Alawite rump state would probably remain for a while along the coast, with Tartus at its heart. Both Assad and the Russians have a joint strategic interest in defending that bit of coast.

A Russian Yakhont missile.Credit: Wikipedia
Putin, left, and his host, Netanyahu following meeting in Jerusalem, June 25, 2012.Credit: AFP

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