In May 10th Israeli strikes on Syrian army positions across southern Syria Israel fired at least 60 cruise missiles. The Russians say that Syrian air defenses destroyed nearly half of these before impact. That would be quite the accomplishment indeed.
However there is another side to the story. Israel has released footage from one of the missiles as it hits a Syrian Russian-made Pantsir-S1 short-range air defense units. This is highly embarrassing for Russians and Syrians both as Pantsir with its fast-firing cannons and missiles of its own was designed to defend key positions from precisely these sort of threats — yet it could not defend even itself. Now, the unit was not camouflaged or dug in. It was sitting out in the open on airbase tarmac. That is extremely reckless and amateurish. Most likely the unit wasn’t even switched on, or was waiting for an ammunition refill (why out in the open??).
However, the Pantsir wasn’t the only kill. The Israelis also destroyed a number of S-200 radars. The S-200 system comes with a heavier missile for long-range air defense. It is positively ancient having entered service in the 1960s and is no longer in use by Russia. Yet it is the best that Syria has.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 11, 2018
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 10, 2018
At the same time Russia has stated the transfer of the newer S-300 systems to Syria is not in the cards right now. The very Russian official in charge of military assistance to other nations has stated that “Syria has all it needs”. This strikes me as a very weird thing to say at a moment when its S-200s are getting blown up.
The Israeli media is tying the Russian statement to Netanyahu lobbying against the transfer on his May 9th Moscow visit, but Russia claims the two are not linked. I am actually willing to buy the latter just not Kremlin’s explanation of it.
There are valid reasons why Russia would balk at giving Syria the S-300. Firstly there are political and optical problems involved. The Israelis are now firing off their missiles from Israeli (Palestinian) and Lebanese airspace. Defending against them would entail downing Israeli jets over Israel. Now, if that is accomplished by Russian military aid (Syria can’t realistically pay for the S-300s) you start to see my point… If thanks to Putin Israeli jets start falling down from the sky in Israel the US elites can fan the flames of Russophobia in the famously pro-Israeli Middle America all the more easily.
Also it is entirely possible that Russia doesn’t fancy having to foot the bill. The Israeli air force is a large one and highly technically sophisticated. There is no guarantee that it can be deterred or defended against by just a battery or two of S-300s. Quite possibly it would take a much larger buildup of Syrian air defenses, a buildup which Russia perhaps doesn’t want to finance. Especially at a time when it is reducing even its own defense spending.
In the 1970s Israel and Egypt fought an air war of attrition. Egypt’s Soviet-trained and Soviet-supplied air defenses inflicted unacceptable losses on the Israeli air force, but Moscow ended up footing the bill. Putin, who commands a smaller country than Brezhnev and a far, far less ambitious one, is probably not too keen on walking in the Soviets’ path.
That’s quite understandable and probably wise, but to say that Syria has all the air defenses it needs right now — when Israel has been striking it with virtual impunity now for almost seven years is patently untrue and a very bizarre thing to say.
The real explanation is that Russia is unwilling to assume the risks and the burdens of the kind of buildup of Syria’s military that would actually take to check the Israelis if the latter decide to be really stubborn about it.
It would provoke the pro-Israeli Washington elites and burden Russia financially and politically for little gain given that Netanyahu keeps reassuring Putin that Israel does not seek to alter the outcome of the Syrian civil war, but is merely pushing back against Iranian influence in Syria.
As long as Moscow buys that it won’t react. Russian anger rises only when Israel acts in such a way as to set up a war between the US and Assad as was the case last month. This gave rise to the Russian threat they may supply Syria with improved air defenses but the threat now appears to be empty.