In October 2010, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a government-owned defense company, signed a deal to sell $400 million worth of drones to Russia. The news was surprising. For years, Israel had complained to Moscow about its support of Iran and Syria and how Russian weapons were even being used by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Opponents of the deal in Israel’s defense establishment argued that the drones sold to Russia—or the technology they are based on—could also eventually make their way into the hands of Israel’s enemies. But the government decided to go through with it. Russia had failed to develop its own drones and was willing to pay top dollar after encountering Israeli-made ones during the 2008 war with Georgia in South Ossetia.
So why did Israel agree to the deal?
The answer was given a month earlier when the Kremlin announced it was officially cancelling the planned delivery of the S-300 air defense system to Iran. The original deal for the system had been signed in 2005 and by 2010 Teheran had finished paying for it and Iranian officers had already undergone relevant training in Russia. Nevertheless, the deal was cancelled, largely due to what can be called “arms diplomacy”.
The story of the Iranian S-300s came to mind this week as Russia once again moves forward with plans to deliver the advanced missile system to a country in the Middle East, this time Syria.
Capable of tracking numerous targets and engaging six simultaneously, the S-300 also has a range of 200 kilometers, meaning that airliners landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport could potentially be targeted.
This time, though, diplomatic resolutions like the one in 2010 do not appear on the horizon. This is despite Israel’s best efforts, including a trip Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to Russia in mid-May where he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to cancel the deal.
Instead, Israel is threatening military action. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that if the S-300 is delivered to Syria, Israel would “know what to do” and Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi, a former head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, warned that the Middle East would be plunged into regional war if the system is delivered.
Most recently, Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror reportedly claimed that if the system is delivered to Syria, Israel will take action to stop it from becoming operational.
Contrary to the impression from the flurry of recent news reports, the S-300 sale to Syria is old news. The deal was signed back in 2011 and, already then, Israel lobbied Moscow to cancel it, receiving assurances at one point that delivery would be stopped. What has brought the issue to the forefront of Israel’s agenda now though is a belief that Russia is actually planning to deliver the system, possibly within the coming months.
Why Russia would want to deliver these missiles to Syria right now is understood within Israel as part of Moscow’s attempt to retain some level of influence over the region.
Learning the lesson from what happened in Libya, Russia does not want the same outcome for Syria where it maintains its only physical presence in the Middle East in the form of a naval base in Tartus. Russia also has an extremely large defense industry whose mouth it needs to make sure is fed with lucrative and profitable deals every once in a while.
If, however, the missiles are delivered, Israel will have limited options. With constant surveillance over Syria already in place—satellites, drones and other reconnaissance aircraft are used daily—Israel will likely know in real time once the missiles arrive, most probably by sea.
Intercepting them in transit, however, would be a mistake which could lead to a confrontation with Moscow. Instead, the preferred option would be to strike the missiles once they are inside Syria. There would be a narrow window to do so since it would take the Syrians several weeks to set up and deploy the missile batteries before declaring them operational.
What makes the S-300 so daunting for Israel is that it has the ability to alter the balance of power in the region. When the Iran sale was still a possibility, Israeli Air Force planners warned that it could make an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities impossible. With Syria, the concern is twofold.
Firstly, the deployment of the system in Syria would further impair Israel’s operational freedom and undermine its aerial superiority in a future conflict. Already, under the existing systems in Syria, the Israeli Air Force would need to spend the first few hours of a future war neutralizing the Syrian air defense systems before turning to other missions.
Secondly, there is concern that Syria would try to transfer the system to Hezbollah, a move which, if successful, could give the guerilla group a real deterrent against future Israeli operations.
The problem is that another strike against Syria—Israel has already carried out three—would likely not be ignored and this time the Israeli home front could find itself under attack, even if in a limited way. Netanyahu would then face a daunting decision: to escalate in the face of Syria’s response or to ignore it. If Israel responds, it could trigger a larger regional conflict. If it ignores the response, Israel’s deterrence will have suffered an unbelievable blow.