Following a joint missile attack carried out by the United States, Britain and France in mid April 2018 against a number of Syrian government and military facilities, Russia indicated it may be willing to provide Damascus with S-300 surface to air missile systems to strengthen its defences and deter future attacks. While the Syrian Air Defence Force was reportedly able to intercept the vast majority of Western cruise missiles, they did so relying on heavily upgraded variants of Cold War era surface to air missile platforms such as the S-125 and S-200, which while formidable were limited in their range and precision compared to more modern systems. With Syria since suffering several large scale air attacks from neighbouring Israel, and Western leaders continuing to threaten further attacks on the country if necessary, its need for a long ranged defence platform capable of engaging not only enemy missiles, but targeting hostile aircraft at long distances as well, appears great indeed.
Following a visit to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early May, where he met President Putin and discussed the situation in Syria in depth, Russia has reportedly cancelled plans do deliver the S-300 to its Middle Eastern ally. While Russia sought to equip Syria with capabilities to deter future Western attacks, its concern for Tel Aviv's security which the weapons system would also undermine led it to reconsider the provision. This is a factor which never affected its predecessor the Soviet Union, which had no diplomatic relations with Israel and provided Syria with some of its most capable air defence platforms specifically aimed at countering Israeli attacks. Syria's armed forces had placed an order for the S-300 long before the outbreak of war in the country, as well as elite MiG-31 interceptors to engage Israeli F-15 heavy fighters. Russia reportedly denied both requests due to Israeli pressure, and with Syria today coming under regular attack, the implications of Russia's new foreign policy, deviating significantly from that of the Soviet era, are truly dire for Damascus. Unable to acquire the weapons it needs from Russia, Syria could well look to other potential suppliers for both modern air defence systems and combat aircraft. The S-300 is neither the only nor the most capable anti aircraft system of its kind currently available.
Iran is one potential provider of long range surface to air missiles, with Tehran having developed the Bavar-373 and commissioned it into service in August 2016. Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi referred to the platform as "a long range air defense missile system similar to S-300" to provide the country with some degree of self sufficiency following Russia's cancellation of the S-300 delivery - a decision taken by then President Dmitry Medvedev under Western pressure. The missile system was designed to be compatible with and work alongside other Soviet built systems such as the S-200, which Iran also fields in considerable numbers, but its capabilities are notably lacking compared to modern S-300 variants. Indeed, whether it can match the earlier S-300 PMU, which dates back to the late 1970s, is itself in doubt given Iran's relatively limited experience in the field.
While Iran is likely willing to provide the Bavar to its Syrian ally, possibly at a considerable discount or as aid, its ability to counter threats from modern Israeli fighters is relatively limited. With Israeli sources reporting that Iran's armed forces have already deployed considerable air defence assets to protect its Revolutionary Guard Corps contingents in Syria, the Bavar maybe well be used on Syrian territory by forces other than those of Damascus. Relying on Iranian arms to defend its airspace however remains a potential threat to Syria's sovereignty, with the secular Ba'athist state already relying heavily on the Islamic Republic for its protection despite their diverging visions for the future of the country. Relying on the Bavar-373, despite its highly limited capabilities, risks granting Iran further leverage over Syria while failing to adequately fulfil its air defence needs.
Continued in Part Two