In the aftermath of a joint U.S., British and French missile strike on the Syrian capital Damascus on April 14th, Russia has responded both by strongly condemning the attack and indicating additional support for its Middle Eastern partner in future. The Western strike on Syria was carried out without a mandate from the United Nations or the support of the international community, and has widely been labelled an illegal act of aggression. The attack was carried out in response to Western allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government against Islamist held areas within the country’s borders, and while these allegations were unproven they were nevertheless used as a pretext for unilateral military intervention.
The United States and its European partners reportedly launched 103 missiles at a number of targets in Syria, of which 71 were successfully intercepted by the country’s air defences. Syria’s air defences have primarily been comprised of systems such as the S-125 and S-200 dating back to the Vietnam War era which were provided by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These systems were upgraded extensively by North Korea, which operates these missiles alongside more modern platforms in large numbers and has long maintained close military ties to Damascus. The modernisation program was key to facilitating Syria’s successful interception of the Western cruise missiles and blunting of the attack, which as a result amounted to failure. It has also allowed Syria to target hostile combat aircraft infringing on its airspace on a number of occasions.
While Syria has proven successful in using its older air defence systems to protect its airspace, repeated infringements on Damascus’ territory and threats to its sovereignty by the Western bloc have led Russia to consider providing its ally with more capable air defences. Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff Col. Gen. Sergey Rudskoy stated regarding deliveries of more advanced weapons to Syria: "A few years ago, we refused to supply S-300 air defence systems to Syria due to the request of some of our Western partners. Taking into account what happened, we consider it possible to return to this issue. And not only with regard to Syria, but with regard to other states.”
Alexander Sherin, first deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's lower house defense committee, stated in the immediate aftermath of the attack that Russia out to provide Syria with more capable missile defence systems, and should also consider such deliveries to under states under threat of similar unilateral Western attacks. He named Iran and North Korea as other examples inf states in need of such defensive Missile systems, stating: "It is necessary to consider not only deliveries of missile defence systems, but also deliveries accompanied by those people who can train the personnel of these countries, so that Syria, Iran and North Korea could deploy these systems, if they wanted." With North Korea and Iran both fielding advanced systems such as the S-300 and KN-06 far more capable than those of Syria, his statement hinted that deliveries of the S-400 or other more modern platforms could well be under consideration. Russia's armed forces have already deployed S-400 air defence batteries with coverage over both Syrian airspace and the Korean Peninsula, the latter as a deterrent to Western attacks on North Korea which borders Russia's Far East.
With the proliferation of state of the art air defence systems having been deemed a significant national security threat by the United States, due to its ability to prevent military interventions by the U.S. and its allies by denying access to a country’s airspace, seeing Syria equipped with such a weapons system would be a disaster for Western regional interests - particularly with other states such as Iraq set to also acquire similar platforms. Israel too, which has often clashed with Damascus, could well perceive a significant threat in the provision of more advanced surface to air missile systems to Syria by Russia. The Times of Israel reported a statement by a high ranking member of the Israeli military’s General Staff which stated: “In our worst nightmares, we never dreamed we would have the S-400 system in our backyard with Syria.” Even if only an advanced variant of the S-300 were delivered to Syria's armed forces, it could well have a similar effect and give Syria's Air Defence Forces coverage of all of Israeli airspace. Russia's provision of the weapons system must thus balance strengthening its ally's security against future Western attacks while ensuring Israel's own security interests are not overly compromised to avoid deteriorating relations with Tel Aviv.