Turkey and Israel better stand firm in face of Russia’s S-300 Tantrum

In the 1980s, a Soviet joke had a Syrian general saying it was all well and good that the USSR has given him the most advanced surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, but what he really needs is surface-to-aircraft missiles.

Moscow’s judgment of Syrian air defence, and broader military, incompetence has changed little since then. On Sept. 17, however, the Syrian strategy of panicking and haphazardly firing off dozens of SAMs in all directions long after an air attack had ceased finally paid off. Unfortunately, the plane they downed was a Russian Il-20, killing more than a dozen Russian servicemen.

While the incident did take place during an Israeli air raid on a Syrian missile factory transferring weapons to Hezbollah, the accident had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with Russian and Syrian incompetence. Israel even dispatched the commander of its air force, Amikam Norkin, to brief the Russians on what had actually transpired.

Despite all this, the Russian Ministry of Defence, in a multimedia presentation that rejected the laws of time, space, truth, and basic logic, pinned the blame on Israel, and vowed to finally make good on its threat to deliver the more modern S-300 SAM system to Syria. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu promised to provide Automatic Control Systems to the Syrians to improve air defences and the ability to identify Russian aircraft, and threatened to “jam satellite navigation, on-board radars and communication systems of combat aircraft, which attack targets in Syrian territory,” deploying electronic warfare equipment like the Krasukha-4 for such purposes.

However, there is little reason to take these Russian threats seriously. A tried-and-tested method of Russian propaganda is to ignore chronology and repackage plans and actions planned long in advance, or actually ongoing, as a response to external aggression.

For instance, Russian electronic warfare has been a persistent problem since it intervened in Syria. The Krasukha-4 was in fact deployed to Russia’s Khmeimim airbase in 2015. Russia’s threatened response, as always, is merely a description of what it has been doing for years, even if it really has deployed yet more systems. Likewise, Russia has presented its partnership with Turkey’s sworn enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, as an effort to fight Islamic State (ISIS), though this relationship is decades old.

The S-300 delivery is an even more egregious example. Syrian President Bashar Assad said Russia had already delivered them in 2013, even as reports alleged Russia had cancelled its earlier deal to provide several S-300 batteries to Syria due to Israeli pressure.

At the time, it was painted as retaliation for the European Union’s decision to lift an arms embargo on Syria to aid opposition groups. Then, in April of this year, following Western strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, Russia again promised to give Syria S-300 batteries, this time as a response to Western strikes. Now the S-300 delivery has been repurposed as a response to Israeli actions. Notably, Russia managed to transport dozens of vehicles and components for the S-300s to Syria within two weeks, suggesting that the delivery was prepared months before the downing of its jet by Syrian SAMs.

Should Russia finally carry out its threatened delivery of the S-300s, the effect is minimal. Assuming the system’s capabilities are as advanced as claimed, which is in doubt, they will still be manned by Syrian regime personnel that even the Russians do not trust to act effectively. Russian overseers hardly solve the problem, given their record. The most advanced weaponry in the world would not suddenly enable what is left of the notoriously inadequate Syrian army to defend Iranian sites.

Certainly, no other modern Russian air defence system has fared well against the Israeli air force in the hands of the Syrians during this conflict, and Israeli electronic warfare capabilities, not to mention its experience practicing against the S-300, would render the system relatively ineffective, even if they allow it to become operational.

In 2013, Israel said it would prevent any S-300s from becoming operational in Syria, and for Jerusalem there are good strategic reasons to fulfil this threat. Russia has claimed that within three months, Syria will have an Integrated Air Defence System and its officers will be trained to use the new technology. Such an upgraded air defence system in the hands of a regime as irresponsible as Assad’s might threaten not only Israel, but coalition aircraft in northeast Syria and Turkey’s freedom of manoeuvre over Idlib, as well. Fully operational S-300 batteries may discourage Turkey’s response when the Assad regime decides to attack Idlib in violation of agreements Turkey believes it has reached with Russia.

Moscow is potentially setting itself up for a disastrous repeat of the 1982 fiasco in Lebanon, when Israel destroyed all the SAM systems the Soviets had given to Syria, as well as a substantial part of the Syrian air force, with almost no losses.

Perhaps 200 Russian advisors were killed on that occasion. This time, Russia is setting out a challenge to Israel on an existential red line - namely, providing aerial protection to Iranian proxies and weapons transfers - and it is hardly better positioned.

As military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer phrased it, “We still don’t know exactly … where they’ll deploy them, when they’ll begin shooting at targets in the air, or how many Russian advisors will be killed because they’re in the line of retaliatory fire.”

Israel has the incentive and likely the capacity to disrupt the establishment of an air-defence system, which would not only result in Russian fatalities but also expose how fragile Russia’s position in Syria is, a humiliating political blow.

Contemporary Russia is a second-rate power that has been so seemingly successful in Syria because there has been no serious resistance. If Russia forces Israel’s hand, its facade of strength and competence, built to a large extent on hyped-up headlines, would quickly crumble. And because headlines are Russia’s primary instrument of power, it is now bringing up the S-300s again to get them blaring. Israel is best served by ignoring Russian messaging and continuing its kinetic operations against Iranian assets as necessary. With luck, Russia will not, for its own sake, make a move that risks its strategic gains to make a political point.

While this is hardly the first example of Russia trying to undercut a purported partner, Turkey should be closely monitoring Russia’s response to Israel’s engagement as it attempts to implement agreements regarding the future of Idlib. Israel has bent over backwards to accommodate Russian interests, refusing to join the Western condemnation of Russia over Crimea and the nerve agent attack in Britain, among other things. In exchange, Russia has shown utter contempt for Israel’s security concerns.

Whatever brief respite Ankara imagines it is buying in Idlib by engaging Russia is illusory; the deal as written is entirely one-sided, and Russia does not have the capacity to enforce its will, even on the rare occasions it acts in good faith. What Israel and Turkey should not do is increase their respective coordination with Russia as a result of the S-300s. Treating Russia as a partner can only ultimately undermine the Turkish position, as it has the Israeli one, and both must stand firm and demonstrate their red lines.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.