Why Syria Isn’t Firing Its S-300 Missiles at Israeli Jets

The incredible behind-the-scenes story of how Iran’s Soleimani eliminated Hezbollah’s top commander – who dared to say no

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Russian S-400 air defense missile systems at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, November 2015.
Russian S-400 air defense missile systems at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, November 2015.Credit: AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The hundreds of attacks against Iranian targets and Hezbollah in Syria carried out by the Israel Air Force, are generally considered by pundits to be its most important achievement in the “campaign between the wars.” That is the name of the 21st-century campaign being waged by the Israel Defense Forces and the intelligence community against increasingly powerful enemies, including Iran, Syria and, according to foreign publications, Iraq (in the past similar activity in Sudan was attributed to Israel), and terror organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS in Syria and, according to the same sources, in Sinai as well.

But no less impressive and important is the considerable experience acquired by the IAF's pilots and its aerial control, aerial intelligence and electronic warfare systems, in defending and evading the anti-aircraft batteries of the Syrian army.

How 'God-gate' rocked the settlers’ faith in their evangelical alliesCredit: Haaretz

Over the past seven years – the first attack attributed to Israel took place in April 2013 – Syrian anti-aircraft systems have launched a minimum of about 700 missiles at IAF warplanes.

One missile shot down an F-16 fighter jet. The pilot and his navigator ejected and were evacuated to an Israeli hospital for treatment. That incident occurred in 2018, when the jet was flying in northern Israel, on a mission of defense during an attack on an Iranian command vehicle that had launched a drone at Israel from Syria. The downing of the plane was more of an IDF error than a Syrian success.

On average, the Syrians have fired about 100 missiles a year at IAF aircraft. This indicates that Syria's aerial defense forces fire a substantial number of missile barrages at every attacking plane. The arena is not only full of Syrian missiles, but also has crowded skies in which the air forces of the United States, Great Britain and France operate against ISIS, as well as Russian and Turkish aircraft.

These circumstances highlight even further the successful identification, maneuvering, evasion and disruption capabilities of the IAF's pilots and control systems. Massive Syrian missile fire has enabled the IAF to accumulate greater knowhow and experience in this field than any other air force in the world, including the U.S. Air Force, which also participates in assault missions in Syria and Iraq. Israel shares its experience and knowledge in this sphere with its counterparts in friendly countries.

IAF abilities

It's true that the Syrian missiles are relatively obsolete and from older generations, but that still does not detract from the impressive capability of the IAF. Its achievements can be attributed to a new combat doctrine developed in recent years, to operational experience, to the introduction in different arenas of stealth aircraft (F-35), but also to the fact that Syria has yet to activate its advanced S-300 batteries.

In September 2018 a Syrian defense battery downed a Russian spy plane en route to the Syrian-Russian base in Latakia. By mistake the Syrians launched missiles just when IAF aircraft were engaged in the area in operational activity. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu accused Israel of concealing its planes which were not damaged behind the Russian plane and using it as an “aerial shield.”

Credit: Haaretz / AP

Although Israel denied the Russian claims, Moscow exploited the incident to enforce a new deconfliction mechanism between the two air forces, designed to increase coordination and to prevent air battles, as well as the firing of Russian missiles at Israeli planes. Moscow also used the incident as an excuse to supply the Syrian regime with the S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries.

Syrian crews were dispatched to Russia to learn how to operate the new systems. Later Moscow supplied the systems to the Syrian army and they were deployed on its territory. Although some 20 months have elapsed since the incident, not a single missile has as yet been launched from an S-300 battery in Syria at IAF aircraft.

There are three reasons for this: One is that the batteries have been under the total control of Russian advisers and operators, who are in charge of all the buttons.

The second reason is that those advisers are not permitting Assad’s army to launch the missiles. This is yet more evidence of the double game being played by the Kremlin since 2015, when it deployed thousands of Russian troops, aircraft and the most advanced S-400 defense batteries and warships, in an effort to save Assad’s regime.

Satellite images released by ImageSat International (ISI).Credit: ImageSat International (ISI)

On one hand, Moscow seeks to stabilize Syria, is assisted by Iran in that effort, cooperates with Assad and with Hezbollah on the tactical level against ISIS and the rebels, and also wants to reduce Israel’s involvement in Syria. But on the other hand, Russia turns a blind eye to attacks by Israel, and in so doing actually tactically encourages the campaigns against Iran. Like Israel, Russia too wants to see Iranian troops, Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah leave Syria.

The third reason why to date the S-300 batteries are not thundering through the skies is the fear in Russia that if they are indeed activated and miss their targets – it would demonstrate the technological and operational superiority of Israel and the West, which would hurt the pride of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country's defense industries.

'Routine of violence'

After a lull of several weeks due to the coronavirus crisis, which has distracted the leadership in Jerusalem and Tehran, the two countries have resumed their “routine of violence.” According to outgoing Israeli Defense Ministry Naftali Bennett, the IAF has resumed its attacks on Iranian targets in Syria with even greater intensity: It has reportedly carried out six attacks in the past two weeks.

Israel’s intelligence community divides Iran's involvement in Syria into several periods. The first, until 2006, was characterized by strong ties between the two regimes, which was channeled mainly into military assistance to Hezbollah, on a relatively minor scale. The next period lasted from the Second Lebanon War in 2006 until 2011, when Iran increased its control of Hezbollah in Lebanon via the Revolutionary Guards, and turned Syria into a conduit for transferring long-range missiles.

The third stage came with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, and until 2016 was characterized by direct and indirect military assistance to Damascus in the war against ISIS, via Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias.

It was followed by the fourth phase, which former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence described as “the vision of Qassam Soleimani” – named after the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. The esteemed Iranian general understood that the defeat of ISIS was near, as it was confronting the combined forces of the international coalition, Russia and Iran.

While attempting to defeat ISIS, Soleimani took a very unusual step: He ordered the assassination of Mustafa Badr al-Din, one of the three supreme military commanders of Hezbollah. The triumvirate also included Talal Hamiyah and Fuad Shukr, who constituted the collective command of the movement’s military arm, after the 2008 assassination in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister.” His assassination was attributed to the Mossad and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Mughniyeh was Al-Din’s brother-in-law.

Al-Din, who for years was in the crosshairs of Israeli intelligence, commanded the Hezbollah forces in Syria since the beginning of the civil war. Due to the large number of casualties among his fighters (over 2,000 dead and thousands of wounded since the outbreak of the civil war) Al-Din demanded the reduction of Hezbollah’s presence in Syria. Israeli intelligence perceived Al-Din as a hotheaded psychopath, a skirt chaser with a short fuse.

Soleimani demanded that he continue to send Hezbollah warriors into battle. The tension between the two increased and in early May 2016 Soleimani summoned Al-Din to a meeting in one of the Quds Force's offices in the Damascus international airport. They drank tea, ate refreshments and tried to clarify the dispute between them. But it was too late. In a scene reminiscent of a Mafia operation, Soleimani left the room, and his bodyguards entered and shot Al-Din at short range with their pistols.

Soleimani’s vision was to exploit the defeat of ISIS in order to attain regional hegemony for Iran. The Revolutionary Guards, the Shi’ite militias of mercenaries, and volunteers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, commanded by Soleimani and his officers – all sought to establish a significant Iranian foothold in Yemen, Iraq and Syria.

Soleimani planned to deploy in Syria and to settle there 100,000 Shi’ite fighters, to house air force and intelligence bases, and missile sites aimed at Israel, and to bring thousands of teachers to Syria to augment its Shi’ite connection with Tehran.

Pictures of slain top commander Mustafa Badr al-Din (Mustafa Badreddine), who was killed in Syria, hang during his funeral procession in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, May 13, 2016. Credit: Hassan Ammar,AP

In order to upgrade the Iranian weapons system in Syria, and those of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Soleimani budgeted about $100 million alone for the Scientific Studies and Research Centers, aka CERS. In the past, scientists working on behalf of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad and his son Bashar worked in these centers to develop biological and chemical weapons. At present they are working there on upgrading Syrian and Iranian missiles, and improving their precision technology. The IAF is said to have attacked CERS sites several times during the civil war, most recently a few days ago in Al-Safira, in the Aleppo district.

Unfulfilled vision

But Soleimani had difficulty implementing his vision. The political and the military-defense leadership in Israel under Eisenkot – and now under his successor Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, along with MI chief Tamir Heyman and Mossad head Yossi Cohen – are as determined as he was. The IAF attacks, with the aid of precise intelligence, repeatedly prevented Soleimani’s efforts to deploy his forces in Syria, initiate the development of precision missiles in Lebanon, and to build infrastructure and create a springboard for Hezbollah to open a second front in the Golan Heights. Soleimani was forced to downsize his forces in Syria as early as 2019.

His assassination in Baghdad in early 2020, in a daring U.S. operation, dealt a serious blow to Tehran's prestige and his reputation. Added to that, are the U.S. sanctions that are bringing down Iran’s economy, the drastic decline in the oil prices and the coronavirus crisis, which is wreaking havoc in the country. According to a cautious estimate, at present there are perhaps 20,000 Shi’ite fighters in Syria, a few hundred Iranian commanders and advisers, and about 2,000 Hezbollah fighters.

The Israeli defense establishment now sees an opportunity to extricate Iran from Syria. Meanwhile, Iran is moving some of its bases from Damascus to the east, near the Iraqi border, so as to distance them from Israel and its attacks. The absence of Soleimani, whose successor Gen. Ismail Kaani has not been able to fill his shoes, is also felt.

Iran is a big country with endless patience. It is at a crossroads and is waiting mainly for the outcome of the U.S. elections in November. But it has not abandoned plans to challenge Israel. Last month Iran successfully launched its first military satellite in orbit and by using U.S. servers it failed to hack civilian Israeli water sites. It is expected that Israel with its more advance cyberwarfare will soon retaliate. But above all Iran is still committed to its strategy, its vision and its three supreme goals: preserving the Islamic regime and improving the economic situation in the country; achieving regional hegemony; and attempting to obtain nuclear weapons as an insurance policy.

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