Enter the S-300s

Israeli warplanes could finally lose their freedom to attack Syria with impunity

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Many readers were sceptical when we predicted in this newspaper that Syria would emerge as the biggest gainer from last week’s downing of a Russian air force reconnaissance plane and the killing of its 15 crew members. We argued that the incident amounted to an affront by Israel not just to Russia but to President Vladimir Putin personally, and expected him to respond either by threatening to shoot down Israeli warplanes carrying out air raids in Syria in future, or by supplying Syrian air defence forces with sophisticated S-300 missiles to do the job themselves. This conclusion was widely questioned, and some went as far as to say that the Russian president would never retaliate as he was afraid of Netanyahu and keen to maintain his strong relationship with Israel.

Om Monday. Putin phoned his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Asad to inform him that his country would provide the Syrian military with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems within two weeks.

Moreover, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shugoi held a press conference at which he told reporters that these highly capable weapons could intercept and bring down Israeli warplanes at a distance of more than 250km – i.e. in Lebanese airspace, which they often use to launch attacks on Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria.

He also said his country would equip Syrian air defence command centres with control systems that only Russia’s own military possesses, which would enable them to identify overflying Russian aircraft. More importantly, he said Russia would jam the communications of any warplane that tries to fire missiles into Syria from over the Mediterranean.

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Putin did not accept Netanyahu’s apology for Israel’s role in the downing of the Il-20 reconnaissance plane or condolences for the death of the 15 military intelligence officers who were on board. He instead delivered a practical response to Israel’s arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards Russia, and its indifference to placing its servicemen in danger, by sending the missiles. They could put an end Israel’s freedom to run riot in Syria and Lebanon’s airspace, a surprise development that nobody anticipated.

The deliberately leaked accounts of the meeting held by the chief of the Russian air force with his visiting Israeli counterpart make clear the extent of Russia’s pain and anger at the wound – both physical and moral — that was inflicted on it by the Israelis. The meeting lasted only 21 minutes. It was stormy, and harsh words were spoken. The Russian minister walked out without taking leave of the Israelis after warning them that any warplane approaching the Syrian coast would be brought down. He proceeded to deploy 12 Sukhoi SU-35 aircraft to patrol the area as a challenge to Israel. They have already arrived, and Israeli planes have so far kept well out of their way.

Putin had previously taken his appeasement of the Israelis to extremes by complying with their demands not to supply S-300s to Syria, purportedly because they would pose a threat to Israel’s security. This despite the fact that a contract for their delivery was signed five years ago, Syrian officers had been trained to operate the systems, and the Syrian government had provided a down-payment for them.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been uncharacteristically taciturn in recent days, threatened years ago that Israel would destroy any S-300s that were provided to Syria if they attempted to intercept Israeli aircraft. So will we make good on this threat in a fortnight’s time when the systems are delivered, as Putin promised in person?

We doubt that either Lieberman or his boss Netanyahu feel capable of entering into a confrontation with Russia. The days when Israeli planes could fly with impunity over Syria, bomb any targets they wanted, and then return safely are over, or so we believe. The Russian president does not dissemble, and tends to do as he says. He has had it with Israel’s lies, devious methods and arrogant attitude. Better that this conviction should come belatedly than never at all.

Israel is in a state of high alarm. Its leaders were dealt a powerful slap that they were too arrogant to anticipate or expect. This in addition to its pre-existing worries about Hezbollah, Iran and Syria’s missiles, not to mention Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Its Arab allies doubtless share its apprehension on two counts: first, Israel’s weakened position; and secondly, the negative impact that has on their project in Syria aimed at dismantling and toppling the regime. This has been dealt a heavy blow.

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The Syrian regime has for years been obliged to contain its anger and put up with the pain of the Russian-Israeli relationship, which prevented it from acquiring the missiles it needs to defend its airspace. It now emerges as the winner from this crisis, which it never tried to contrive but was offered on a golden platter.

The same applies  — whether in whole or part, or short- or long-term – to its Iranian allies. The partnership between Russia, Syria and Iran is growing stronger, and on many issues the three countries see eye-to-eye strategically. That was apparent at the recent tripartite summit in Tehran at which the future of Idlib was discussed. The Russian and Iranian presidents took one side, and their Turkish counterpart another.

This crisis in relations between Russia and Syria will probably be overcome sooner or later. At a time when Arab regimes are grovelling at Netanyahu’s feet and lauding him as a strong ally, Russia can hardly be expected to start massing it tanks and warplanes for the liberation of Palestine. Russia is a superpower and it has its own interests. The problem lies with us Arabs, who have lost track of where our interests lie.

But any Russian-Israeli reconciliation is likely to come at a high cost to Tel Aviv. We have the Turkish precedent to go by. Downing Russian warplanes is no minor or inconsequential matter that can be shrugged off with niceties and pro forma apologies. Russia has a different kind of leader these days, a KGB graduate who wants to restore the country’s greatness and avenge the dismantling of the Soviet Union. He cannot forever overlook the fact that Israel is the US’ closest ally and its partner in all the wars it wages and conspiracies it hatches.

One can sense sighs of relief in Damascus… and moans of pain and regret in Tel Aviv.