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Return of Soviet Era Patronage? Russia to Provide Syrian S-300 Air Defence Systems Free of Charge

April 25th - 2018

In response to airstrikes carried out jointly by the United States, France and Britain on April 14th against a number of Syrian military and government facilities, Russia has stated its readiness to provide Syria and possibly a number of other states facing the threat of Western military intervention with advanced air defence systems. While the Western missile strike was carried out in response to allegations of a chemical attack by the Syrian government, the Western powers lacked support from most of the international community or a UN mandate to carry out their attack, leading Moscow and a number of other states to term the strike an illegal act of aggression. Syria is as a result set to be provided with the S-300 surface to air missile system, a platform Damascus has long sought but Moscow has been unwilling to provide due to Western and Israeli pressure. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated regarding Russia’s change in policy following the attack: “Several years ago we decided not to supply S-300 systems to Syria at our (Western) partners’ request. Now, we will consider options to ensure the Syrian state’s security after this outrageous act of aggression from the United States, France and Great Britain.”

Syria’s Air Defence Force has long relied on Soviet era Russian platforms such as the S-200 and S-125 to protect its airspace, and while dated these platforms have been extensively upgraded with North Korean assistance to allow them to engage modern aircraft and missiles - which they have done highly successfully on a number of occasions. The S-300 would however significantly strengthen the country’s air defence network and provide it with an effective defence against future Western attacks. With the three Western powers notably having given Syrian airspace a wide berth with their combat aircraft to ensure they remained out of range of the country’s surface to air missiles, instead relying heavily on long range air and naval launched cruise missiles, a variant of the S-300 specialised for a missile defence role may well be ideal for Damascus’ defence needs. The S-300V, an advanced variant of which has been deployed by Russia to military facilities in Syria in a complementary anti missile role to the longer ranged S-400. It has been sold to a number of clients including Venezuela and Egypt, is specialised in intercepting enemy cruise and low altitude missiles and is arguably the most capable system in the world in fulfilling such a role. The platform still retains significant anti aircraft capabilities, and could well be the ideal platform for Syria.

With Syria’s economic situation dire as a result of over seven years of internal conflict, and with the country’s military budget standing at under $3 billion, Russian military and diplomatic sources have indicated that Moscow is considering supplying its Middle Eastern ally with the air defence system free of charge. S-300 components including radar stations, transport loading machines, control points and launchers are set to be delivered to Syria in the near future. While the Soviet Union long provided its allies with weapons systems at extreme discounts and on credit, which was very often later forgiven, following the USSR’s dissolution Russia suffered an economic disaster in the 1990s, with its economic shrinking by 40% within a decade. As such Moscow has not been inclined to provide military assistance to its partners and has almost always demanded full payment for arms. Syria’s case however appears to have moved Russia to reconsider its policy and revert at least in this instance to providing military aid. This comes in part as a result of Syria’s strategic importance to Russian interests in the Middle East, the significant benefits that Russia would gain by deterring future Western attacks via further proliferation of its air defence systems in the Middle East, and also due to the country’s economic recovery since 2000 which while paling in comparison to the size of the Soviet era Russian economy, is no longer impoverished as it once was. With Syria having recently provided Russia with unexploded Western cruise missiles recovered in the aftermath of the April 14th missile strike, Russia could well provide Damascus with the S-300 as a reciprocal sign of goodwill rather than as military aid. North Korea and Iran however, which already deploy far more capable air defence networks than Syria and which each retain defence budgets well over double the size of that of Damascus, are unlikely to be provided with similar terms despite recent calls within Russia’s leadership to provide these states with more modern air defence systems. 

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