Lebanese media raised the tension level in the north several degrees Thursday morning when it quoted Syrian President Bashar Assad saying Russia had already sent him the S-300 anti-aircraft system. Israeli defense officials have warned in recent days that the military could well act to prevent Syria from operating the system.
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Israel treated the report skeptically, saying it had no information to confirm it, suspecting it was merely a crude attempt at psychological warfare. And in fact, this skepticism proved warranted: When the full text of Assad’s interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television station was published, it turned out that all he said, when asked whether the S-300 had been delivered yet, was, “All of our agreements with Russia will be implemented, some have been implemented during the past period and, together with the Russians, we will continue to implement these contracts in the future.”
It’s not impossible that Israeli intelligence could have missed a first delivery of components. But even if so, the system would still be a long way from operational. The process of setting it up is expected to take anywhere from six months to a year.
First, Syrian operators will have to be trained to use the system in Russia. Next, the components have to be delivered. Finally, the system has to be put together and calibrated before it can be declared operational.
Israel, as National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror warned explicitly last week, is considering attacking the system before it becomes operational. In so doing, however, Israel would effectively be jumping straight into the Syrian civil war, something it has long promised to make every effort to avoid. Any decision to attack would also have to take into account the possibility that Russia would view this as a direct challenge to it.
Nevertheless, Israel has good reason to be worried about the S-300: Its arrival would fundamentally change the balance of deterrence in the north. During the first Lebanon War, in 1982, the Israel Air Force destroyed Syria’s surface-to-air missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Ever since, for more than three decades now, it has enjoyed complete dominance of the northern skies. That is why both the Syrian army and Hezbollah subsequently equipped themselves with large numbers of missiles and rockets: These are weapons that can circumvent the IAF to strike Israel’s home front.
Though no one would say the northern border is stable, the balance of deterrence appears to have held there since the Second Lebanon War of 2006. But the S-300 could restrict the IAF’s freedom of action.
Former senior air force officials said Thursday night that if necessary, the IAF could overcome this obstacle. Reuters reported Thursday that Cyprus, which has an S-300 on the Greek island of Crete, “may have given Israel’s air force a chance for test runs during maneuvers over the Mediterranean.” Nevertheless, this system has the potential to significantly change the equation.
This fact once again raises questions about the wisdom of the third Israeli air strike on Syria, even if Russia might have gone through with the sale anyhow, for its own reasons. Either way, it seems Assad is now trying a variety of tactics to deter further Israeli attacks, from threatening to respond with missile launches through threatening to attack from the Golan Heights (in his Al-Manar interview Thursday, he said “there is clear popular pressure to open the Golan front to resistance”) to reports of the S-300 deal.
Two other reports connected to the Syrian crisis also hit the news Thursday. First, the Nigerian government announced the capture of a three-man Hezbollah cell that had planned to attack Israeli and Western targets. Nigerian military spokesman Capt. Ikedichi Iweha said in a statement that the three Lebanese suspects were arrested between May 16 and May 28 in northern Nigeria’s biggest city, Kano, and all had admitted under questioning to being members of Hezbollah.
A raid on the residence of one suspect uncovered 11 60mm antitank weapons, four anti-tank land mines, two rounds of ammunition for a 122mm artillery gun, 21 rocket-propelled grenades, 17 AK-47 rifles with more than 11,000 bullets, and dynamite, Iweha said.
Hezbollah and Iran have tried repeatedly to attack Israeli targets overseas in recent years, including in Georgia, India, Thailand, Bulgaria and Cyprus. Thus the Nigerian cell isn’t necessarily connected to events in Syria.
Nevertheless, it’s not inconceivable that the tension between Israel and Syria helped spur Hezbollah, Syria’s close ally, to make this latest attempt.
Also Thursday, the Washington Post published a shopping list that the Syrian army sent to Russia in March. In it, the army requested a price quote “in the shortest possible time” for a list of items that included 20,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 20 million rounds of ammunition, machine guns, grenade launchers, grenades, and sniper rifles with night-vision sights. The S-300, it seems, is far from the only thing Assad wants from Russia.
Barak Ravid, Jack Khoury and Reuters contributed to this report.