Russia’s Actions in Syria Threaten a Broader War
The delivery of Russian S-300 air defenses to Syria threatens to broaden the war there, as these advanced systems could allow for a conflict with Israel.
By announcing this delivery, to be made in the coming two weeks, the Russian military appears to be on the side of Iran and hostile to Israel, neither of which is part of President Vladimir Putin’s approach to the Middle East or, for that matter, the future of Russia.
Russia saved the Syrian regime from collapse by bringing in air power and encouraging the Iranians and their allies in Hezbollah to provide renewed muscle for ground fighting. Russia brought in its top aircraft, including the Su-35, protected its main base Khmeimim with the formidable S-400 Triumf missile defense system, and worked out a deal with Israel. Iran contributed large numbers of Shiite mercenaries, including jihadi fighters, Pakistanis, and Afghans led by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers.
The Israeli-Russian deal instituted a “deconfliction” system so that Israel could maintain certain red lines in Syria without encountering Russian fighter aircraft or missiles launched from Khmeimim. The deal was recently upgraded to keep Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces away from the border with Israel.
One Israeli red line is the acquisition by Hezbollah of sophisticated missiles. Iranians transport missiles to Hezbollah through Syria because the military part of the Damascus airport is heavily defended unlike the one in Beirut (the alternative option), and because the airbase is better protected against commando operations.
Israel has focused on staging areas and warehouses, many of them clearly under the control of the Syrian military. To keep Israel away, some of the warehouse roofs have been painted with UN symbols or with DHL logos. This backfired, however, as it makes it easier for Israel to find its targets.
Israel is looking for missiles manufactured primarily by Iran, but also those from China, North Korea, or re-transferred to Syria but made in Russia. Some are based on Russian designs and others on Chinese rockets, such as the WS-1 Weishi (Guardian). While most are unguided, they represent a threat to Israeli communities, especially in the north, including large cities such as Haifa, which has already suffered missile attacks from Hezbollah.
Other Israeli operations appear to have targeted Iranian troops — including IRGC officers. Last July, Israel allegedly destroyed a Revolutionary Guard center near Aleppo. In January 2015, Israel hit a convoy, killing six Hezbollah soldiers, and Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, a Brigadier General in the Quds Force of the IRGC. The Quds Force is an elite commando force of the Revolutionary Guards that reports directly to Ayatollah Khamenei. Its commander is Major General Qasem Soleimani. The same strike killed Jihad Mughniyah, an important Hezbollah leader.
One possible option for Israel is to surround Iran’s military forces including proxies and force Hezbollah to fight with them. In this way, both forces could potentially be defeated, even liquidated. Israel has been carrying out extensive military training and planning, as well as military drills that even include a war scenario where Russia is directly involved.
The Americans have now been added to the mix.
Last August, National Security Adviser John Bolton said that Putin would like to see the Iranians leave Syria, but lacks the influence to get rid of them (whether that is true or not, it is a signal from Putin). Putin has sent other signals about his concern with the Iranians, because Iran could very well threaten Russia’s interest in Syria or force Russia into a war it does not want or need. Just this week, Bolton laid down an American red line, announcing that the US would remain in Syria as long as there were Iranian troops and their proxies there.
This is the bigger war that is potentially brewing in Syria — mostly concerning Israel and Iran. The Russian response to losing its Il-20M aircraft to Syrian fire appears to bring that war closer instead of postponing it, and could jeopardize Russia’s ability to remain in Syria.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to telephone the Russian president about the incident. Shortly afterwards, Putin made it clear that the shooting down was “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” and not Israel’s fault. He also directed his military to keep the deconfliction mechanism in place. An Israeli delegation in Moscow provided a detailed account of its mission in Syria on the night the plane was shot down.
Even so, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced Russia was moving its S-300 air defense system to Syria. Shoigu noted that Russia had suspended the delivery of the S-300 system in 2013 “at the request of Israel.” He said Syrian gunners were already trained and the S-300 would arrive in Damascus within a fortnight. The minister made clear this was retaliation.
Most important, Shoigu added that Russia would henceforth “jam satellite navigation, onboard radars, and communication systems of combat aircraft that attack targets in the Syrian territory, in the regions over the waters of the Mediterranean Sea bordering with Syria.”
Israel probably has tactics to deal with the S-300. The Pentagon has confirmed that Iran tested and deployed the S-300, which was delivered in 2016 and took two years to become operational. Israel and the US believe these missiles have boosted Iranian air defenses at least a full generation.
A similar system in Syria may take time to become operational, despite the training back in 2013 of Syrian operators — unless, of course, the Syrians bring in Iranians to do it for them. This would be a game changer and could be enough to trigger a broader war.
This would put the Russians in a much more dangerous position. Instead of Syrian missiles being only an incidental target when they engage Israeli aircraft, the S-300 could potentially become a target of the Israeli Air Force.
That would be bad news for Putin, who wants to stabilize Syria, retain his bases there, and avoid more war. Putin’s strategic objective would seem to be to work a deal, principally with the United States but with Israel’s agreement, that would recognize Russia’s long-term interest in Syria as a “guardian” of whatever future Syrian government is agreed to. Iran is a big sticking point, and the S-300 could make matters much worse.
It is unclear if the Russian military might be willing to risk a confrontation with Israel. While upset about the destruction of the Il-20M, they have long wanted to be considered a top power like the US. Putin shares these concerns, but he also has to worry about the impact of precipitous military decisions on the whole Russian state.
To have any hope of delivering an end to the war in Syria that preserves Russian bases and influence, Putin has to keep the Iranians away from the S-300 in Syria, or delay its delivery into the unforeseeable future.
Shoshana Bryen is an analyst of US defense policy and Middle East affairs with more than 30 years experience. Stephen Bryen has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and head of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.