[this article was written for the Unz Review]
This week Russian officials declared that the delivery of S-300s for Syria was completed and that this first batch included 49 pieces of “military equipment”, including radars, control vehicles and four launchers. Russian officials added that, if needed, this figure could be increased to 8-12 launchers. Defense Minister Shoigu added that “the measures we will take will be devoted to ensure 100 percent safety and security of our men in Syria, and we will do this”. This leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
First, it is still unclear which version of the S-300 was delivered to Syria. Some sources say that this might be the S-300PMU2, others mention the S-300VM while, yet other sources speculate that this might be an S-300V4 or its export version the Antey-2500. I will spare you the technical details (those interested can look at the pretty detailed Wikipedia entry here), but it should be noted that until the specific version of the S-300 becomes known it will be very hard to assess the potential impact of this delivery. The original S-300s are by now maybe not obsolete, but most definitely not the bleeding edge of air defense technologies. (The first S-300s entered service with the Soviet military in the late seventies!). But the newest version of the S-300s are very close in capabilities to the S-400 system and thus rank among the most capable air defense systems ever built. For example, a lot has been made from the fact that the Israelis have had many years to study the S-300s delivered to Greece, but what is often overlooked is that the version delivered to Cyprus and which was later re-deployed to Greece was the (relatively outdated) S-300PMU-1. The probability that the Russians would deliver this version to the Syrians is close to zero. However, when I think of Israeli Defense Minister (and bona fide nutcase) Lieberman declaring that “one thing needs to be clear: If someone shoots at our planes, we will destroy them. It doesn’t matter if it’s an S-300 or an S-700” he probably was told by the Israeli military analysts that the S-300 is not that formidable a weapon and missed the fact that they were referring to the older version and not the kind of kit the Russians would be using nowadays.
What is sure is that just four launchers are not very many, but are enough to protect any one specific part of Syria. They will also increase the overall number of Russian/Syrian air defense missiles thus helping to achieve the officially stated goal of ensuring “the 100 percent safety” of the Russian forces in Syria. However, this is certainly not enough to create a complete no-fly zone over the entire country, at least not against a large scale attack.
Still, the Russians already have S-300s (and even S-400) in Syria and 4 more launchers do provide them with some additional firepower, but not any new capabilities. I think the most likely explanation is that the S-300s delivered to the Syrians will protect a few important strategic Syrian targets (Damascus?) while, at the same time, adding firepower to the (rather small) Russian task force in Syria. As for the statement that an additional 4-8 launchers could be delivered, that is both a sign that the Russians want to keep their options open while, at the same time, creating a deliberate ambiguity about how much firepower they actually possess at any one given moment in time.
Second, I will repeat what I said before: S-300s are not what the Syrians need most. In terms of anti-air missiles, what they need most are higher numbers of Pantsirs-S1/2 mobile medium to short range air defense systems. Not only are the Pantsirs ideal to protect against cruise missile strikes, they can also protect the S-300s, which will become a critical issue if the Israelis decide to try to destroy them (which they threatened to do in the past).
What S-300s primarily add to the Syrian capabilities is not so much the ability to intercept more missiles, but the ability to track and engage AWACS and other battle management and reconnaissance aircraft at very long ranges. In theory, an S-300V4 could make it impossible for the Israelis to put up an AWACS at any useful range. The AWACS would either have to remain too far to be of use, or take the huge risk of being shot down by a high speed and very maneuverable missile (S-300V4 missiles have a flight envelope of 400 km at Mach 7.5 or of 350 km at Mach 9!). If the Israelis conclude that the Syrians now have S-300V4’s, they will have to dramatically decrease their air operations in Syria and will switch to tactical (ground to ground) ballistic missiles and long range artillery systems. More S-300s also improve the overall radar coverage and will close some gaps created by the Syrian mountain ranges.
Third, it remains equally unclear, perhaps deliberately, which electronic warfare systems Russia has deployed (or will deploy) in Syria and in what numbers. Possible candidates include the Zhitel R-330Zh electronic intelligence and jamming system, the Borisoglebsk-2 RB-301B electronic warfare weapon system and the Krasukha-4 jamming system. As for the automated command and control system which might be deployed to Syria, my guess is that the Polyana D4M1 would be a prime candidate. Whatever the actual mix will be in the end, I would argue that this presents a more formidable capability than additional S-300 launchers. Sure, this is apples and oranges, but we have to keep in mind that these electronic warfare systems are extremely powerful force-multipliers which can dramatically increase both the Russian and the Syrian defensive capabilities by jamming GPS signals, datalinks, cellphone signals (used for targeting and intelligence), radars, by creating false targets and even by destroying electronics. Electronic warfare is one field in which the Israelis have always enjoyed a huge superiority over their Arab victims and the fact that this has now changed is an extremely distressing development for them, even if they will never admit it.
As predicted, the Israelis have declared themselves both superior and invulnerable so they will continue their policy of (completely illegal) aggression against Syria. They have several options here: the Israelis might decide to stick to basically symbolic attacks against unprotected targets and declare each time that they have destroyed a huge depot of Hezbollah missiles or a Syrian chemical weapons plant. That would greatly help to bolster Netanyahu’s “patriotic” credentials while keeping the real action at a purely symbolic level. The second option would be to use ballistic missiles and long range artillery and strike some real targets. Finally, the Israelis could try to launch a complex and large air attack on the Syrian air defense systems in an attempt to show that S-300s are no big deal for them. The option of using ballistic missiles is probably the most likely one (and if the Syrians don’t keep their S-300s fairly close to each other (so they can protect each other), the Israelis might also be able to destroy them). That is a rather risky plan since, if successful, it would just result in more air defense system deliveries from Russia. This is something the USA might strenuously object to since every time the Russians deliver military hardware to the Syrians to protect them against the Israelis, they also improve the Syrian capability to defend their country against US/NATO/CENTCOM attacks (the delivery of S-300s to the Syrians is just as much a disaster for the USA as it is for Israel so I imagine that the US commanders are rather angry with the Israelis for creating this situation).
It is important to keep in mind that while the S-300s are certainly formidable air defense systems, they are not a Wunderwaffe which could, by itself, prevent the Israelis from attacking Syria. The latest delivery of military hardware from Russia will definitely mark a sharp increase in the Syrian (and Russian) defense capabilities, but if the Israelis are determined to continue striking Syria, the Russians will have to deliver even more systems.
Speaking of the Israelis, their big delegation which traveled to Moscow apparently only succeeded in further irritating the Russians. I had speculated that they might present some kind of exculpatory evidence but I was wrong: apparently, they had nothing to say besides “Iran is bad” and “Syria is responsible”. This is what caused the Russians to show a record of the radar data of the Russian S-400 in Syria to prove that every words of the Israelis were lies, lies and more lies.
I see that as yet another proof of the absolutely amazing combination of gross incompetence and breathtaking arrogance of the Israelis. The way they conducted their entire attack is already a testimony of their gross lack of professionalism, and they only added insult to injury when they showed up in Moscow and looked the Russians straight in the eyes and lied about everything (even though they must have known that Russians had it all recorded second by second). When Putin spoke of a “chain of tragic circumstances” he was very politely trying to give them an out as long as they apologized and compensated the Russians, but to the Israeli Herrenvolk that would have been totally unacceptable. They did what they always do: they doubled down and accused all their critics of antisemitism. What else is new?
In conclusion I will say that, while I might very well be wrong, I still don’t believe that the Israelis had some sophisticated plan to achieve some still to be determined goal. During the past year the Israelis informed the Russians about their planned airstrikes in Syria via their deconfliction line only in 10% of the cases. For the remaining 90% they did not even bother, in spite of having promised to do so in their agreement with Russia. In sharp contrast, the Russians always informed the Israelis of their operations, as did the Americans towards the Russians. But the Israelis simply think that they don’t have to abide by any kind of norms of behavior. That kind of contempt for agreements (and for non-Jews in general) is typical of the Israeli mindset and it will eventually bring the downfall of the last openly racist regime on the planet.