Analysis

Russian Missile Deployment in Syria Facilitates Hezbollah's Smuggling of Advanced Weapons

The bolstering of Moscow's bases and air defense systems in Syria complicates the situation for the U.S. - and Israel as well.

The Russian air defense system missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, stands on display at an air show outside Moscow, August 27, 2013.
Ivan Sekretarev, AP

While Americans are preoccupied with the endless scandals swirling around the Republican presidential candidate, their government is engaged in a cold-war-style war of words with Russia. The main arena is Syria, but the tension between the superpowers is perceptible everywhere and could even have an effect on the presidential election a month away.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for a war crimes investigation into Russia and the Assad regime for the bombing of civilians in Syria. For the first time officially, the Obama administration accused Russia of cyberattacks including the hacking into the Democratic Party’s computers, a move it said was designed to intervene in the election campaign.

The decision to release an official denunciation was made only after a long deliberation and heavy pressure by the Pentagon. The American media is reporting about growing confusion in Washington in view of Russia’s moves; some commentators are calling on the administration to take limited military action against the Syrian regime as a message to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Russia’s parliament has approved an agreement with Syria under which Moscow will operate a permanent air base in the Latakia region in Syria’s northwest. Russia threatened that any American attack on areas ruled by Assad would be seen as an act that could endanger its troops in Syria. Russian forces in Syria have received strict orders on engagement in case they see themselves in danger, Russian media reported.

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visits an air base in Syria on June 18, 2016.
AP

At the same time, Russia has reportedly redoubled efforts at its naval base in Tartus since the cease-fire collapsed on September 19. Russia recently sent two more ships to Syria, deployed new surface-to-air missiles and apparently sent in more Sukhoi fighter jets.

American reports and commentaries are rife with comparisons to the situations in Vietnam and Afghanistan, as well as to the Cuba missile crisis and the clash in Berlin in the early ‘60s. Conservative columnist George Will wrote in The Washington Post on Friday that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is bringing back the 1930s” – that is, the days of mass murderer Stalin. But despite the resolute tone, it’s hard to tell if Washington’s rebukes are a sign that it’s preparing the ground for military action in Syria.

Here too the presidential election is a major consideration. If the Obama administration believes Americans’ shock over Donald Trump’s sexism increases Hillary Clinton’s advantage significantly, it may decide that Aleppo’s distress doesn’t justify endangering the Democratic victory.

The possibility of U.S. jets clashing with Russian and Syrian air defense systems over Syria isn’t very likely at the moment, but it would certainly have repercussions in Israel as well.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov speaks with a montage showing Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at rear, Oct. 7, 2016
Ivan Sekretarev, AP

Although Israel has declared itself on the American side, the Netanyahu government has tightened relations with Moscow, mainly to avoid incidents with Russian jets. Around two months ago Israeli forces failed to intercept a Russian drone that crossed the border in the Golan, probably by mistake. There were unconfirmed reports that Syrian or Russian anti-aircraft systems locked on Israeli planes while flying over Syria.

Netanyahu’s frequent meetings with Putin have probably not been received enthusiastically in Washington, but Netanyahu thinks they’re vital to keep Israel out of the war in Syria. Although Israel isn’t pleased with the strengthening of the Assad regime thanks to the Russian and Iranian aid, direct American intervention in Syria would clearly heat up the region.

The bolstering of Russia’s air defense systems in Syria affects Israel in another way too. The Russians have said they’ve deployed weapon systems including S-400 and S-300 missile systems, as well as defense systems on ships. Some of these systems have an estimated range of around 400 kilometers.

Since the beginning of 2012, foreign media outlets have reported dozens of times that Israeli planes have struck weapons convoys from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has never confirmed this, and Netanyahu has spoken generally about Israel’s efforts to prevent smuggling.

The broader air defense deployment will have an effect on any air force activity (American, Israeli or other) in Syria and Lebanon. Hezbollah, which is part of the Russian-led forces tightening the siege on Aleppo for the Assad regime, may think Syria’s closer ties with Moscow allow it more freedom to smuggle weapons. In these circumstances, it could try to bring into Lebanon advanced systems, some of them Russian made, which Israel has said in the past it would not allow.