After Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian military plane on Sept. 17, Moscow blamed Israel, claiming that it had used the Russian plane as a shield to protect its own. Now Russia says it’s supplying Syria with the S-300 air defense system – a more modern, accurate and agile system than the S-200 system Damascus used to down the Russian plane. With better radar capabilities, the S-300 would certainly be a greater threat to Israel’s air operations in Syria, a fact Moscow is fully aware of. Years ago, Russia signed a deal to sell the S-300 to Syria but canceled the agreement in 2013 because of lobbying efforts and threats from Israel.
Understanding the significance of this development requires answering two related questions, the first of which is tactical: How would Israel, which has been attacking Iranian targets in Syria, manage the new challenges posed by the S-300? Military officials note how effective the S-300 is in denying airspace to fourth-generation fighters like the F-15 and F-16, which constitute the core of Israel’s air force. It’s therefore unlikely that Israel could simply evade the S-300, as it generally has done with the S-200.
Israel could simply destroy the S-300s, of course. It could use what’s known as a High-Speed Anti-Radiation missile to take out the radar system, as it did in the 1982 Lebanon War to disable Syrian air defenses. Another option would be to launch a cruise missile attack on the installations that house the S-300s, but it would have to be a massed attack since the S-300 is designed to hit several targets at a time. Otherwise, Israel could use its F-35 fighter jets, which it says it has already deployed in combat. Militaries, however, are often reluctant to use stealth aircraft because it gives the enemy an opportunity to acquire knowledge about how they work and how to overcome them. (In fact, Russia says it already has the capability to track and target American F-22s and F-35s, a claim that is impossible to verify until it happens.) Stealth aircraft, therefore, are likely to be used only in the most challenging circumstances against the most dangerous targets.
The second question is more strategic: Would Syria’s acquisition of the S-300 affect Israel-Russia relations in any way? Ultimately, neither country has an interest in going to war with one another. Russia still wants to be able to claim some sort of victory in Syria without incurring too many casualties, and Israel wants to cut off Iran’s supply lines to Hezbollah. At this point, Moscow has effectively accepted Israel’s presence in Syria. When the Russian plane was shot down two weeks ago, Russia’s main complaint against Israel was not that it shouldn’t be operating in Syria but that the Israeli air force didn’t give Russian forces enough warning ahead of the strike. Indeed, the two countries have set up mechanisms to prevent such accidents over Syria’s crowded skies. Providing Syria with the S-300, therefore, might be more about placating Bashar Assad than challenging Israel.
But Russia also has an interest in defending its troops in Syria. Fifteen servicemen were killed when the Russian aircraft went down, and the Russian public will demand a response. Moscow can’t afford to have such events happen again. The S-300 may help Assad differentiate friend from foe and prevent more friendly-fire incidents from happening in the future. It will also force Israel to work more closely with Russia and offer more warning ahead of an attack, especially if Russian troops man the S-300 sites. After all, Israel wouldn’t want to inflict Russian casualties while trying to destroy the sites. But if Syrians operate the S-300s, Israel won’t hesitate to strike. The Israeli government may mean it when it calls the deployment of the S-300 a red line, but ultimately the national security threat posed by Iran and its support of Hezbollah outweighs the one posed by Syria, the introduction of the new system notwithstanding. Even if it were to lose an aircraft, Israel likely wouldn’t slow down its airstrikes. Last February, an Israeli plane was shot down reportedly by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, and since then, Israeli attacks have only increased.
Assuming Russia is telling the truth – that S-300 deliveries are already underway – there’s no guarantee Russia would replace the systems Israel eventually destroys. Russia is under public pressure to take action right now, so it’s possible that a couple of S-300s will be deployed and later removed or simply not replaced if they are destroyed. It may come down to whether Moscow accepts that the downing of the Russian plane was really an accident. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin initially attributed the incident to “a chain of tragic circumstances.” But if Moscow believes that Israel intentionally put Russian aircraft in danger, as it is now claiming, it’s more likely to station Russian troops at the S-300 sites and make it difficult for Israel to dismantle them. It would surely complicate Israeli operations in Syria but may also force greater cooperation between Russia and Israel.