World News

Eyeing Israel, Putin Pledges to Send Syria New Missiles

Posted September 24, 2018 8:03 p.m. EDT

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia would supply the Syrian military with a sophisticated air defense system, a move that reflects Russia’s increasing tensions with Israel and that could heighten the risks of the air war over Syria.

Israel, which has long opposed the weapons transfer, has carried out more than 200 strikes on Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria in the past two years as Russia, Syria’s main patron, has mostly looked the other way.

But relations between Russia and Israel have frayed since a Russian military plane was shot down over Syria a week ago, killing 15 Russian service members. The plane was accidentally shot down by Syria in response to an Israeli airstrike.

After Russia initially blamed Israel, Putin appeared last week to accept the loss as an accident.

But on Monday, Russia’s defense minister said the decision to send the sophisticated S-300 missiles to Syria was made in response to Israel’s disregard for the safety of Russian military personnel. Israeli pilots, he said, had intentionally maneuvered near the Russian plane to shield themselves from attack by Syria, putting the Russian crew at risk.

“The Israeli crews, who knew perfectly well the situation in the air, found cover behind the Russian airplane, which led to its destruction and the deaths of 15 members of the service,” Sergei Shoigu, Russia's defense minister, said. "This compelled us to take reasonable measures in response, intended to improve the safety of Russian soldiers.”

Israel has rejected this analysis, saying its jets had already returned to Israeli airspace before the missile was fired.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said in a telephone call with Putin on Monday that “transferring advanced weapons systems into irresponsible hands will increase the dangers in the region,” according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.

He added that Israel would “continue to defend its security and its interests,” implying that it would not be deterred from continuing to attack Iranian-affiliated targets, including advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed movement in Lebanon, for possible future use against Israel.

Israeli analysts said the transfer of Russia’s powerful S-300 ground-to-air missile systems to Syria would add an extra layer of risk and complexity to such operations.

So far Israel has enjoyed relative freedom of action in its air campaign in Syria, in part a result of the good relations Netanyahu has nurtured with Putin. And while the new missiles would complicate military actions in Syria’s crowded airspace and might present an additional challenge, several analysts said that they would not be a game changer.

The Israeli military has prepared for such an eventuality for years, Israeli analysts said, and could likely work around it, destroying the systems if necessary.

“Supplying the S-300 increases the risk from unprofessional Syrian operators to Russia’s air forces first and foremost, to Israel, to the United States and the coalition, and likewise to civil aviation,” Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, wrote on Twitter. “Israel has been preparing for the threat for 20 years already and will know how to cope.”

But François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst and a former defense official, said he presumed the S-300s would be operated by Russians, not Syrians.

“The Russians are careful guys and have their arrangement with the Israelis,” he said. Basically, he said, it is “to give the Russians a heads-up when you want to bomb Iranians or Hezbollah in Syria so we don’t shoot at you, but don’t go beyond that target set.”

The new missiles “are not a game changer unless the Israelis want to change the game, and I don’t assume they want to do that,” Heisbourg said.

The S-300 missiles are mounted on a truck in tubes, giving the weapons the look of a logging truck and an ability to move about to avoid attacks. The missiles have a range of about 150 miles.

Unlike Syria’s older weapons, the S-200, the newer missiles have an electronic system to avoid hitting friendly airplanes.

More than the new system’s capabilities, however, the bigger threat may be a deterioration of Russian-Israeli relations. The promised weapons transfer illustrated that the crisis over the downed Russian plane was not over.

The episode happened after Israeli jets struck a military facility in Western Syria that Israel said contained weapons-manufacturing systems that were to be transferred to Hezbollah. The Syrian military responded by firing an outdated, Soviet-made missile that hit a Russian reconnaissance plane, an Ilyushin Il-20.

Russia’s Defense Ministry accused Israel of hiding its F-16s behind the Russian plane, effectively turning the Il-20 into a target for Syria’s anti-aircraft missiles. But Israel said the Russian jet was not in the area when Israeli warplanes attacked their target, and that the Israeli jets were back in Israel’s airspace by the time the surveillance plane was shot down.

Putin appeared to accept the point and dampen the dispute, saying the next day that “a chain of tragic accidental circumstances” was to blame.

But Sunday, Russia’s Defense Ministry issued a scathing report again placing full responsibility for the downing of the plane on Israel.

The Israeli military responded with a statement saying again that its jets “did not hide behind any aircraft” and that “the Israeli aircraft were in Israeli airspace at the time of the downing of the Russian plane.”

The Israeli military insisted that its deconfliction mechanism with Russian forces “operated in the relevant time frame,” giving them ample warning.

But Putin appeared to have changed his mind.

The Kremlin said Monday that the Israeli explanation “differs from the conclusions of Russian Ministry of Defense” and that the actions of Israel’s pilots were the “root cause for the tragedy.”

The Kremlin said the new missiles would be delivered within two weeks.