Analysis

Israel Faces a Much Bigger Challenge in Syria Than S-300s

Putin didn't like Israel's strikes after Assad retook southern Syria. The spy plane incident provided him with tools to shape a new strategic reality

People watch S-300 air defense missile systems launching missiles during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia.
REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

The crisis on the Syrian front also appears to be far from over, even if it has fallen off the front pages and the news broadcasts. Despite the reassuring noises coming out of Jerusalem, something fundamental has shifted in the north. Senior officials repeat at every occasion the mantra that the Israel Air Force is free to act in Syrian airspace and will renew its strikes on military targets there if necessary. In the meantime, however, at least according to foreign news reports, that hasn’t happened. Since the downing of the Russian plane over Latakia by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles during an Israeli airstrike on September 17, there have been no reports of new attacks.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

With great pomp and circumstance, S-300 surface-to-air missile systems were delivered to the Russian Hmeimim air base in western Syria, in Moscow’s first concrete response to last month’s incident. According to experts, it will take the Russians a few months to train the Syrian crews to operate them independently. Even then, it’s not clear what command and control policy will be established between Damascus and Moscow on Syrian soil.

Nevertheless, after marveling at the presumed ability of IAF pilots to evade these air defense systems, it bears remembering that this challenge is not child’s play. The Russians are equipped with electronic warfare systems and a myriad other methods that could increase the difficulty level for Israel.

The bigger obstacle, though, is strategic. Vladimir Putin was not happy about Israel’s continued attacks after the Assad regime regained control of southern Syria and consolidated his grip on the rest of the country. The most recent incident gave the Russian president tools to ratchet up the pressure on Israel – and perhaps on Iran and Hezbollah as well – and to create a new strategic model that minimizes the power and the frequency of friction among the parties.

In his address to the UN General Assembly last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also mentioned the destination of the Iranian shipment that was attacked in Latakia – underground manufacturing sites for precision-guided missiles and rockets that Hezbollah is building in Beirut, according to Israel. After a calculated three-day delay, the Lebanese government invited diplomats and journalists to a tour of the sites exposed by Netanyahu to rebuff the Israeli leader’s allegations. Not all the participants were persuaded. Some of them must have noted that three days would have given Hezbollah sufficient time to get rid of the evidence – in theory, at least. The locations of the sites were not hidden from Western observers: near the international airport, schools and hospitals, not to mention a golf course favored by foreigners.

On Wednesday, someone sent text messages to the cellphones of tens of thousands of residents of southern Beirut, showing an aerial image of a fourth site that Hezbollah is developing in the heart of their neighborhood. The residents were warned of the implications of living so close to missiles. In contrast to the Gaza Strip, the drumbeat of an imminent war is not heard in Lebanon, but psychological warfare is undoubtedly being conducted in there, on a wide range of channels and frequencies.