Analysis

Delivering S-300 to Assad, Putin Sends Trump a Clear Message – and Israel Should Prepare

New Russian missile defense system serves a double role: defensively, it protects Moscow's military assets in Syria; offensively, it is a potent weapon of psychological warfare – and could be a game changer for Israel's air force

An Iranian military truck carries parts of a S-300 air defence missile system during a parade on the occasion of the country's annual army day  in Tehran on April 18, 2018
ATTA KENARE/AFP

Russia’s S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles serve a double purpose. They provide effective defense for the Russian military in Syria, but are also a psychological asset.

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For the decade of talks preceding the Iran nuclear deal, Russia indicated it would export this advanced system to Tehran. This would have made any attack on Iran’s nuclear sites very difficult. The S-300 was finally sent to Iran after the signing of the Vienna deal in 2015. Recently the Russians began leaking hints that they would equip the Syrian army with a similar system. In the last few days they have begun to talk openly about it.

In fact, the Russians have already deployed the S-300 system in northwest Syria, alongside the more advanced S-400 system. They did so about two and a half years ago, before sending their air force squadrons to Khmeimim base, and their crews are operating the systems. Russia is also threatening to provide additional defense systems directly to President Bashar Assad’s army, apparently as a warning mainly to the United States, rather than Israel.

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S-300 Air Defense System infographic
Haaretz

The message is that following the American punitive strike against the regime after the latest attack on civilians with chemical weapons, Russia will be the one to determine what happens in Syria, and Moscow expects President Donald Trump to make good on his declarations to evacuate the few remaining American soldiers in Syria.

The timetable for the threat to further bolster Assad’s defenses isn’t clear. First, it isn’t certain Russia will even carry it out if Trump keeps his word on withdrawal. Second, since this is a relatively complex system, it will take a long time to train Syrian crews to operate it. Still, this is not good news for Israel. The Israel Air Force may have practiced, according to foreign reports, against a Russian anti-aircraft system that was sold to Cyprus (and is held by Greece today). Israel may also be presumed to have ways and means to fly, if needed, despite these systems’ emplacement.

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But the main question concerns the risk they will impose on the air force’s daily activities, in light of the reports on frequent Israeli strikes in Syria. This will require different deployment, all the more so since Syria has been signaling for a while – like in shooting down the F-16 in February – that its days of sitting still for Israel’s bombardments are over.

Meanwhile, despite frequent Iranian threats and incessant (partly redundant) Israeli declarations, Iran has not yet responded to Israel’s strike (according to foreign sources) on its T4 base in Syria earlier this month. Israel is maintaining high alert, assuming the Iranians haven’t given up on the idea.

According to intelligence evaluations, Tehran will seek to respond in a way that makes it clear it isn’t taking the killing of seven of its Revolutionary Guards men lying down, but that won’t lead to a direct military confrontation with Israel either. The Iranian military deployment in Syria is still restricted and relatively exposed to an Israeli attack. Also, Iran’s partners in supporting Assad – the Syrian regime, Russia and Hezbollah – are not keen on a conflict that could jeopardize the regime’s survival.

Other restraining factors are at work, too. Hezbollah is preoccupied with the May 6 elections for the Lebanese parliament and does not want to appear as an Iranian puppet at this stage. Its leaders have already the confrontation to be an Israeli-Iranian matter. From Iran’s point of view, a revenge attack close to a possible American retreat from the nuclear agreement on May 12 would only corroborate Trump’s arguments for pulling out of the pact.

Despite such arguments, Tehran seems to remain unconvinced that it is better off not retaliating. The intensity of Iran’s retaliation, if this happens, will determine future developments. Israel will respond in one way to rockets that fall in an open space and in another way to an attack on one of its embassies abroad (an operation that, if not prepared in advance, requires relatively prolonged Iranian preparations).

Judging by Israeli and foreign media reports, Jerusalem appears to be busy conveying messages of deterrence to Iran. But despite Russia’s summoning Israeli and Iranian officials, separately, to Sochi this week, it is doubtful whether Moscow can play honest broker between the parties.

Without such mediation and a reasonable compromise between the conflicting interests – Iran’s establishing a base in Syria versus Israel’s declared resolve to thwart it – the prospect of an Iranian retaliation is still there.