If the recent report that an advanced Syrian S-300 air defense missile was fired at Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter jets for the first time is indeed accurate, it could be a big deal.
Israel’s Channel 13 news reported on May 16 that an S-300 missile was fired at Israeli jets after they attacked targets near the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf on the night of May 13.
The S-300 was fired as the jets were returning to base. According to the report, the system’s radar did not lock onto any of the Israeli aircraft and, therefore, posed no serious danger to them.
It’s possible Russia was attempting to send a signal to Israel by firing the system for the first time. If so, it wouldn’t be Moscow’s first attempt to signal its desire for Israel to limit its air campaign over Syria.
Russia delivered Syria those S-300s for the first time in 2018 shortly after an incident involving Israel. In September of that year, during an Israeli strike in the western province of Latakia, a vintage Syrian S-200 fired at the Israeli jets hit a Russian Il-20 plane instead, killing all 15 of its crew.
Moscow blamed Israel for the incident, charging that the Israeli jets knowingly and purposely used the Russian plane as cover from Syrian air defenses, imperiling the Russian service members aboard.
In response, Russia delivered S-300 batteries to Syria to upgrade and modernize its antiquated air defenses. Those missiles would, in theory, enable Damascus to hit targets at high altitudes over 100 miles away.
However, there was a catch. Russian military personnel have overseen the ostensibly Syrian S-300s ever since, and, by all accounts, Damascus requires Moscow’s authorization before it can fire them.
Russian personnel most likely fired off the missile on May 13 to signal to Israel that its strike had gone too far in Moscow’s view. In other words, it was a classic shot across the bow.
Russia likely wants Israel to at least limit its attacks in certain parts of the country, particularly the western regime-controlled areas where the Russian military presence and bases in Syria are primarily concentrated. Masyaf, the site of the May 13 strike, is, as Stratfor has already noted, “near Syria’s Latakia province, which hosts Russia’s air and naval bases and is normally off-limits to Israeli strikes, bringing the Israeli raid close to Moscow’s previous red lines.”
If, however, Russia has transferred full command and control over those S-300s to the Syrian military and allowed Damascus to use them to try and prevent Israel from attacking Iran-linked targets in the country, that would be a whole other story.
Syria originally ordered S-300s in 2010. However, following the onset of that country’s civil war the following year, deliveries were suspended, ultimately until October 2018.
In 2013, amid speculation that Moscow was going through with the delivery and not long after the Israeli air campaign over Syria began, Israel hinted it would take preemptive action and destroy the systems before Syria could put them into operation. The S-300 was often described as a potential “game-changing” system since it could, in addition to closing off large parts of Syrian airspace, target Israeli jets operating over Lebanon or potentially even in northern Israeli airspace.
Military analysts at the time noted that Israel could undoubtedly defeat Syrian S-300s but also noted that the system would certainly be the most formidable it ever faced. Israel has, of course, acquired a fleet of stealthy fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II in the intervening years, which increases the odds it could successfully destroy the Syrian systems if it chose to.
If Russia has given full control over the S-300s to Syria, that could prove to be a dangerous gamble. One likely reason for Russian control over the systems since 2018 was to ensure the Syrians didn’t shoot at Israeli warplanes and provoke a devastating retaliation. Seeing those batteries go up in flames after Russia’s much-hyped delivery would be an embarrassment for Moscow, especially after its military has faced repeated defeats and losses in Ukraine.
Furthermore, if the Syrians manage to shoot down an Israeli jet, Israel would undoubtedly launch an overwhelming retaliation that would likely target all its S-300s, along with its Pantsir-S1s and Buk-M2s. After a Syrian S-200 brought down an Israeli F-16 as it reentered Israeli airspace following a raid in February 2018, Israel launched a devastating series of retaliatory strikes. Between 2018-20 it destroyed at least one-third of Syria’s air defenses. Out of 844 Syrian surface-to-air missiles fired at Israeli warplanes, only that lone S-200 brought down one. And even in that rare incident, Israel attributed the loss of its F-16 to “professional error” on the part of the pilot and navigator.
Also, Russia would be taking a huge gamble if it’s calculating that Israel would not destroy Syrian S-300s to avoid killing Russian operators, especially if a ‘Syrian’ S-300 shoots down an Israeli jet and kills any pilots. While Israel undoubtedly doesn’t want a military confrontation with Russia in Syria, Moscow certainly cannot afford one, especially at a time when its ability to resupply its forces in Syria has been severely constrained after Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention following the invasion of Ukraine. Only two ships passed from the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits to supply the Russian military in Syria in April, a vast decrease from the 4-5 vessels that passed through on average per week before the invasion. Furthermore, Turkey also closed its airspace to all Russian military and civilian planes bringing Russian troops to Syria.
There could not arguably be a worse time than the present for Russia to risk clashing with Israel in Syria – not that there was ever any “good” time to do so. At the same time, by purportedly firing that S-300, Russia could be signaling to Israel that it, nevertheless, shouldn’t conclude Moscow is too preoccupied with Ukraine to sit idly by if Israel expands its Syria air campaign.