Russia’s sudden deployment of S-300 surface-to-air missiles in Syria last week raised the stakes in Syria significantly for the U.S. and Israel.
While it is easy to conclude things have become far more dangerous, the fact is that there are certain important aspects of the situation on the ground that we just don’t know.
Before we consider what we don’t know, it is important to understand what we do know about what has happened since a Syrian surface-to-air missile crew shot down a Russian IL-20 spy plane on September 17.
Russia deployed forces and aircraft to Syria in 2015 to prevent the defeat of the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war. Shortly after Russian forces arrived in Syria, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to work out a deconfliction mechanism with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That mechanism enabled the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to continue attacking Iranian military targets in Syria, as it had been doing since the outset of the war in Syria without coming into direct conflict with Russia.
On September 17, the IAF bombed Iranian-Hezbollah targets in Syria’s Latakia region. According to Israel, the IAF informed the Russians of its plan to attack 12 minutes before the raid took place, sufficient time for all Russian air and other assets to avoid danger.
Ten minutes after the time that Israel claims its jets completed their mission and returned to Israeli air space, a Syrian crew manning a Russian-made S-200 surface to air missile battery shot down a Russian IL-20 spy plane. 15 Russian crew members on board were killed.
Rather than carry out an investigation of the Syrian action, the Russian Defense Ministry and some Kremlin spokesmen immediately blamed Israel for the attack.
Israel insists the attack was the result of indiscriminate missile fire by the Syrian crew.
Putin, for his part, made no comment about the incident until the next day. In stark contrast to his Defense Ministry, in a statement he issued after speaking with Netanyahu, Putin absolved Israel of responsibility. In his words, “It rather looks like a chain of tragic accidental circumstances. An Israeli jet did not shoot down our plane.”
Following Putin’s statement, Netanyahu sent a delegation led by IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin to Moscow to personally brief the Russian Defense Ministry about the findings of Israel’s own investigation into the incident. Norkin provided the Russians with detailed proof that Israeli aircraft were not in the area when the missile strike occurred.
The Russian Defense Ministry rejected Norkin’s data and stood by its own conclusion that Israel, not the Syrian S-200 crew, was responsible for the incident.
Three days later, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that within two weeks, Russia would provide Syria with the S-300 surface to air missile system. He also said that Russia planned to jam radars of military planes striking from off the Mediterranean coast. In his words, “In regions near Syria, over the Mediterranean Sea, there will be radio-electronic suppression of satellite navigation, on board radar systems and communication systems of military aviation objects on Syrian territory.”
Eight days later, Shoigu announced that Russia had completed delivery of the S-300 system.
These new Russian assets can undermine Israeli air assaults in both Syria and Lebanon while bringing Israel into direct confrontation with Russian forces.
Moreover, with a tracking range that includes Europe, according to military analysts, the Russian electronic warfare and surface-to-air missile systems in Syria may threaten the U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq as well.
The immediate implications of the Russian move are dire. On the one hand, Shoigu said that Russia will be training Syrian crews to man the systems. But given Syrian incompetence (as revealed by the S-200 strike), and the long training period, it is clear that for at least the next three months, the S-300 system will be operated directly by Russian crews. The electronic warfare systems he described will likewise be Russian operated.
In other words, Russia is taking over direct responsibility for Syria’s air defense. All operations within Russian-controlled air space will be met by Russian air defense teams.
Russia’s immediate and vicious response to the September 17 incident indicates that it was preplanned. Russia’s Defense Ministry seem to have seized on the incident to take actions it had long intended to carry out. Indeed, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced in April that Russia was considering transferring the S-300 system to Syria following the U.S.-British-French air strikes carried out in retaliation for a Syrian chemical warfare attack.
Russia’s aggressive action has intimidated Israel into suspending its airstrikes in Syria. Although Israeli leaders have said repeatedly that Israel will not be deterred by the S-300 and will continue to attack Iranian targets to block Iran from entrenching its forces in Syria or transferring precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a senior Israeli official acknowledged to Breitbart News Sunday that Israel has not carried out any strikes in Syria since September 17.
The S-300 deployment’s impact on the U.S.-Russian balance of power in Syria is less clear.
In late August, the Institute for the Study of War reported that at the time, Russian, Syrian and Iranian forces had deployed in the Deir Azzour region on the western side of the Euphrates River in preparation for an assault on U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed on the eastern side of the river. U.S. forces at Tanf air base along the triborder area joining Jordan, Syria, and Iraq block Iran from transferring weapons and fighters to Syria overland from Iraq. U.S. forces in the Deir Azzour region block Russia from taking control of Syria’s oil fields.
In February, U.S. forces and allied SDF forces in the Deir Azzour area east of the Euphrates came under direct attack by a combined force comprised of Russian mercenaries from the private Wagner group; Syrian and Iranian forces; and Iranian-controlled militias. U.S. special forces in the area, assisted by Kurdish and Arab forces and reinforced by Marines, defeated the assault. Hundreds of Russian contract fighters were killed by a range of U.S. air and ground forces.
In response to the renewed buildup of Russian, Iranian, and Syrian forces on the western bank of the Euphrates in late August, hundreds of Marines were deployed to Tanf, where together with U.S. special forces and SDF forces they carried out eight days of intense, live fire ground and air exercises.
The exercise had the desired effect. The Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces stood down.
But less than a week later, the Russians exploited the IL-20 downing to upgrade and take direct control over Syria’s anti-aircraft systems in a manner that threatens both Israeli and American air operations.
What we know about recent events highlights what we don’t know.
The following are two issues that require clarification before drawing any strategic conclusions about the current crisis.
1. What is going on with Putin?
On the surface, it appears that Putin is a minority faction in the Kremlin. His friendly disposition towards Israel and Jews is clearly not shared by the Russian Defense Ministry. Israeli officials say the vicious attacks on Israel emanating from the Russian Defense Ministry show that Soviet-styled anti-Semitism remains the dominant view in Russian military circles.
Was Putin overruled by the Defense Ministry? If so, what does that mean about his hold on power? What does that tell us about his capacity to make deals with Israel or the U.S. regarding Syria, Iran and other key issues?
If Putin wasn’t overruled, does that mean his apparent moderation is a ruse? Has he been playing a good-cop, bad-cop routine with his Defense Ministry to lull the U.S. and Israel into complacency and set the conditions for Russia to threaten U.S. operations and interests in the Middle East?
It appears that at present Putin is becoming more hostile to Israel and the U.S. For instance, the Russians are reportedly seeking to use the new situation in Syria, where they are intimidating Israel into ceasing its offensive operations against Iran to force Israel to accept Russian mediation of the conflict between Israel and Iran. Given that Iran is Russia’s ally, and that it seeks Israel’s annihilation, it is impossible to imagine that Israel would be able to secure any of its strategic interest through such Russian-mediated contacts. Certainly the Russian initiative is designed to undermine U.S. leadership to curtail Iranian power.
So long as Putin’s position is unknown, it is impossible to estimate the likelihood of reaching a peaceful accommodation with Moscow.
2. Can the U.S. or Israel – or the two in conjunction – take action to defeat Russia’s takeover of Syrian airspace while averting a direct confrontation with Russia?
As Stephen Bryen explained at the Asia Times, the Syrian crews that may operate the S-300s are ill-equipped to handle the system. The system has no friend-or-foe identification (IFF) system. And it has a range that places Israel’s Golan Heights in easy striking distance. A Syrian missile attack on Israel from the S-300 will likely cause a full scale war to break out. The Syrian crews’ incompetence and the lack of friend-or-foe guidance makes the prospect of such a strike on Israeli territory, as well as further incidents of friendly fire against Russian aircraft, more likely.
The Russians have warned Israel not to try to take out the S-300 systems. An Israeli move to do so under the current hostile conditions could easily spark a war. A U.S. strike could also make Russia feel compelled to unleash its Iranian and Hezbollah partners to attack Israel and U.S. forces.
Israel and the U.S. have both claimed that they are capable of operating around the S-300. And in response to the S-300 deployment in Syria, according to some reports, the U.S. has moved F-35 stealth fighter jets to the region and agreed to provide Israel with additional F-35s from U.S. Air Force stocks.
If the U.S. and Israel wish to avert the conflict that a direct assault on the S-300s would likely precipitate, they could conceivably simply use the F-35s to discredit the system. If the F-35 is capable of evading the S-300, then such operations would not only defeat Russia on the ground, but they could also potentially cause significant harm to Russia’s reputation as an arms seller.
Last week, India signed a deal to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. How likely is that deal to come to fruition if the U.S. and Israel expose the failings of the S-300? What about Turkey’s agreement to purchase the S-400?
While these key issues remain unknown, there are low-risk moves the U.S. can take in response to Russia’s adoption of a new, far more aggressive posture towards Israel and the U.S. that could serve to deter Russian adventurism and empower any moderate voices in Moscow that may have been sidelined since Sept. 17.
First, the administration could recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The move would empower Israel diplomatically and weaken the diplomatic position of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime they control.
Second, the U.S. can launch a campaign to withdraw international recognition of the Assad regime.
Iran and Russia both base the legality of their operations in Syria on the fact that the Assad regime asked them to intervene in Syria. But the Assad regime only exists because of their support.
In truth, they are foreign aggressors asserting control over Syria and using a local Syrian proxy to legitimize their aggression. A U.S.-led campaign internationally to withdraw recognition of the Assad regime and remove regime representatives from international forums, including the UN, could weaken the Russian-Iranian political position in significant ways.
Third, the administration could ask Congress for a new, updated authorization for the use of force in Syria. Current authorization is based on the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria. The Obama administration’s strategy was to deploy U.S. forces to fight ISIS and take no action against Iranian or Russian forces in the country.
A revision of the authorization of force to reflect the changing strategic challenges on the ground, including the entrenchment of Iranian and Iranian proxy forces, and the offensive posture that Russian forces in Syria have adopted against the U.S. and its allies, could have a deterrent effect on Russia. It would also enable more flexibility over time for U.S. forces both to defend themselves and advance the wider U.S. objective of bringing about the withdrawal of Iranian and Iranian proxy forces from Syria.
Without clarity on Putin’s position, the relative threat that the new Russian systems in Syria pose to Israeli and U.S. operations, and Israeli and U.S. options for evading and indirectly defeating the S-300 and the auxiliary electronic warfare systems Russia has now deployed in Syria against them, it is hard to assess the overall strategic balance of power in Syria.
There are low-risk moves the U.S. can take to diminish Russia’s appetite for conflict. But more must be known to develop a comprehensive strategy for contending with Russia’s newly aggressive stance in Syria.