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SA-10 to Syria

In 1983 Moscow's improvements to air defenses in Syria, including the introduction of the long range SA-5 [with an effective range of over 250 km], reversed its declining position in Syria and seemed likely to enhance its credibility in the region. Militarily, the systems were designed to create a better integrated air defense system. While did not create an impenetrable Syrian air defense shield, they would exact losses in the event of Israeli airstrikes. Most important, their deployment complicated Israeli planning, particularly because these missiles can attack aircraft over Israel, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean. The Soviets continued to build up air defenses in Syria; their military presence had doubled to around 5,00O men and probably included elements of air defense units to man the SA-5 sites.

Israeli leaders were divided over the necessity or wisdom of a preemptive strike against the SA-5 sites. Some Israelis favored quick action, but most Israeli leaders were reluctant to get into amilitary confrontation with the Soviets and the Syrians. The Israelis did not attack the sites, so the Soviets were credited with having restored the integrity of Syria's air defense system and tried to transfer their success to the political arena. Any Soviet concern that the deployment of SA-5s and other systems to Syria would be considered provocative by the United States and Western Europe was offset by the Soviet claim that the SA-5s are defensive systems and not to be used unless Israel attacks Syria.

In 1983 there was speculation that the Soviets might introduce other missile systems, including the SA-10 [with an effective range of over 200 km], which would enhance defenses against low-flying, high-speed aircraft and would further complicate Israeli military planning, but this did not happen. In the 1990s Damascus sought to acquire Russian SA-10 and SA-11 air defense systems. During 2001 there were reports that Syria had taken delivery of the sophisticated Almaz S-300 `Grumble' (SA-10) SAM system, which it had been seeking to acquire from Russia for some time. Nevertheless, there was a further report that Syria had formed two independent Air Defense Regiments to deploy S-300 and SA-8 mobile SAMs. It was presumed that SA-8, a `point defense' weapon, was being deployed to protect the S-300. Israeli sources claimed in summer, 2001 that their air force had developed counter-measures against the S-300. In the event, these reports turned out to be unfounded, and as of 2013 Syria did not deploy the SA-10.

Although Damascus would like to receive S-300PMU Favorit (SA-20 Gargoyle) long-range SAMs and Iskander (SS-26 Stone) mobile theater-level missiles, Moscow refused to supply them because it did not want to upset the regional military balance and to sour relations with Israel and the United States. Additionally, Syrian officials are said to be interested in Russia’s advanced S–400 air- and missile defense system. The Kremlin is also unlikely to agree. The missile batteries would give Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime a powerful weapon against foreign air strikes – one of the options being bounced around as a form of international intervention.

Russia has been harshly criticized by the West for reported deliveries of six S-300 air defense systems to Syria under a 2010 contract rumored to be worth $900 million. Moscow, however, has insisted that such deliveries would be legal under international law and has denied supplying Syria with offensive weapons that can be used to kill civilians.

The only solid piece of evidence of an actual sale was a 2011 annual report by S-300’s manufacturer, the Nizhny Novgorod Machine Building Plant, which mentioned a contract for the missile systems for Syria. The report has since vanished from the plant’s website, but was cited by the respected Vedomosti business daily at the time as saying that the contract was worth $105 million and that an unspecified number of S-300 systems were slated for delivery between 2012 and early 2013. All other reports have been based on leaks by unnamed intelligence and diplomatic sources, including, in the prominent Russian daily Kommersant and the Wall Street Journal, which said in May 2013 that the deal included four S-300 batteries and 144 missiles and has a price tag of $900 million, with deliveries to begin, possibly, by late summer 2013.

On 23 May 2013 US Secretary State John Kerry said the sale by Russia of S-300 air defense systems to Syria would be “destabilizing” for the region. "S-300 missiles coming from Russia, or other countries, Iranian missiles, are destabilizing to the region," Kerry said. "The United States is committed, not only in its defense of Israel, but in its concerns for the region to try to address this issue."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier in the month that Russia would honor a deal with Syria to supply it with S-300 air defense systems. “Those who do not plan aggressive actions against a sovereign state have nothing to worry about, because means of air defense – and this is clear from the name – are a purely defensive system required to repel air attacks,” Lavrov said. He also said the deal was signed before Israel planes hit targets in Syria earlier in the month.

The European Union agreed 27 May 2013 to keep sanctions against the Syrian government, but to allow weapons to be sent to the main opposition Syrian National Coalition. Russia criticized the decision, saying the move would hurt efforts to hold a peace conference aimed at ending the country's violence.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said 28 May 2013 the EU decision directly harms prospects for peace talks. Ryabkov also said Moscow planned to provide advanced air defenses to Damascus to deter foreign military action against Syria's pro-Russian government. He said the planned transfer of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be a "stabilizing factor" for the country. Ryabkov gave no indication of when Russia will transfer the air defense system. Damascus had signed a contract to buy it several years ago. Russian officials are worried that a Western-imposed no-fly zone would end up like the one put in place by NATO over Libya in 2011, where NATO essentially became the air force for the rebel army.

The surface-to-air missiles would represent a major upgrade over Syria's current air defenses. But it it could take many months if not several years, before Syrian forces were able to effectively use the advanced Russian missile system. While the missiles themselves could be fielded in a few weeks, Syrians would have to be trained to operate the S-300, which would take much more time.

Israel and the United States had urged Russia not to proceed with the sale, fearing the air defense system will threaten Israeli security and complicate any military action they may take in Syria. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned on 28 May 2013 of possible military action if the Russian missile technology were transferred. "Obviously from our perspective it is a threat at this stage," he said. "I cannot affirm that things have been expedited. The shipments are not on their way yet, this I can say. I hope they will not leave and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do."

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said 29 May 2013 that Russia was disappointed with the EU move to end the ban on arms sales to the Syrian opposition and may reconsider its own commitments to restrictions on weapons deliveries to the war-torn country. “Every decision has two sides. If one side lifts restrictions, the other may consider itself free from observing earlier commitments,” Shoigu said at a joint news conference in Helsinki with his Finnish counterpart, Carl Haglund.

Russia’s anti-aircraft S-300 weapons systems, intended for export to Syria before sanctions were imposed, will be destroyed, the director for the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation said 11 August 2014. “The S-300 complexes meant for Syria will be destroyed. This decision has been made on the level of the country’s political leadership,” Konstantin Biryulin said. Asked if the complexes could be sold to a different country, Biryulin said that it was possible, “but very unlikely.” Syria accused Israel of launching two airstrikes on it 07 December 2014, one near the Damascus international airport and another near the town of Dimas, close to the border with Lebanon. Syrian state television said the "Israeli enemy committed aggression" by targeting the two areas, but said there were no casualties.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, with activists monitoring multiple battlegrounds inside Syria, said 10 explosions were heard outside a military area near Dimas. Israel had carried out several airstrikes in Syria since the revolt against Syrian President Bashar el-Assad began nearly four years earlier. Israel did not confirm any of the strikes.

Mitchell Prothero of the McClatchy Foreign Staff suggested that the attack would be consistent with repeated Israeli statements that it would not permit Syria to deploy the S-300 anti-aircraft e system. This raised questions of whether Russia had sent new components of the system to Syria, violating an August 2014 pledge not to complete delivery under terms of a United Nations arms embargo.

Other reports suggested the Israeli airstrike in Syria targeted terrorist weapons delivery. Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz refused to comment directly on the incident, as was also the case with Israeli officials questioned in the aftermath of previous strikes. "We have a firm policy of preventing all possible transfers of sophisticated weapons to terrorist organisations," Steinitz told public radio in response to a question about the strikes, and apparently referring to Hezbollah. Over the past year, Israeli warplanes have reportedly raided a number of Syrian targets and positions of Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

Russian military chief Sergei Shoigu announced 24 September 2018 Moscow's decision to send the modern S-300 air defense system to Syria there was a barely contained coldness in his voice. General Shoigu, Russia's minister of defense, wasn't threatening anyone in particular. But it was clear from his stony demeanor that Russia has had enough of foreign bad faith and deadly mischief in Syria, which has led to the loss of Russian lives serving the call of duty. A loss of lives made all the more poignant because Russian servicemen are in Syria to defend that country from international terrorism. "He was as serious as a heart attack," was how American political analyst described Shoigu's resolute announcement of more powerful air defenses being delivered for Syria. Russian military data showed beyond doubt that Israeli fighter jets were involved in chicanery that led to the shooting down of the Ilyushin IL-20 survey plane and the destruction of all lives onboard.

Russia delivered the S-300 system to its regional ally Syria on 01 October 2018, in response to a September 17 incident in which Syrian forces accidentally downed a Russian surveillance plane using a less-advanced S-200 system as they responded to an Israeli air strike.

Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani described the S-300 transfer as a blow to Israel’s years-long campaign of air strikes on Iran’s forces and suspected weapons shipments to Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in Syria. The Israeli military said last month that it had struck 202 targets in Syria since 2017. “I don’t think that the Israelis are able to take a serious step (after the S-300 transfer),” Larijani said, in an October 9 interview with the Russian TV channel RT’s Arabic service in Turkey.

A number of Israeli media outlets have expressed concerns over Moscow’s decision to supply Syria with S-300 air defense systems and admitted that such steps may have grave repercussions for the Israeli Air Force. Reacting to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s announcement, Channel 9 wondered if Israel was “in for a nightmare” once the S-300 missile systems were delivered, while The Jerusalem Post emphasized that the advanced systems would become a major boost to the Syrian air defenses and would pose a threat to Israeli aircraft as the long-range anti-missile system has the capability of tracking jets and ballistic missiles over a range of 300 kilometers.

The Jerusalem Post further suggested that currently, Syrian air defenses are largely outdated Soviet-era systems as well as more sophisticated tactical systems. The author of the article, however, stressed that Moscow has already provided Damascus with a short range air defense system, Pantsir S-1.

Israel expressed confidence that it can pursue attacks on Iran’s forces in Syria even after Iranian partner Russia transferred the advanced air defense system to Syrian territory. In an interview with VOA Persian in Jerusalem, Israeli Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren said Russia’s transfer of the S-300 system “will pose a challenge, but not an insurmountable challenge.”

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is part of the 11-member Security Cabinet, reacted to the S-300 move by saying Israel will not allow Iran, its main regional rival, to build a stronghold in Syria, adjacent to Israeli territory. “We are going to fight to defend Israeli citizens, just as Iran would do if an enemy would create a big build-up on its borders. Just put yourself in our shoes,” Bennett said.

Israel’s former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin told VOA Persian that Iran cannot count on its forces being protected by the newly-installed S-300 batteries in Syria, either. Russian officials have said those batteries will be operated by Russian forces as they train their Syrian allies to use the system in the coming months. They also said the S-300 transfer was primarily meant to ensure the safety of Russian aircraft and personnel operating in the area.

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Page last modified: 27-10-2018 18:35:09 ZULU