With Syria having endured a massive Western missile strike in April 2018, carried out jointly by France, Britain and the United States, Russia has pledged to provide Damascus with more modern air defence systems to deter future attacks by the Western bloc. While Syria’s armed forces field a number of formidable air defence systems, including the S-125, BuK and S-200, these heavily upgraded Cold War era platforms are limited in their range - allowing Damascus’ adversaries to launch missile strikes against it from well beyond its airspace. Though Syrian air defences, modernised with North Korean assistance, have proven highly effective in intercepting missile attacks, their range has meant that aircraft launching cruise missiles from beyond its borders have been effectively immune to retaliation. Western fighters used this to their advantage during their strikes against the country, keeping their fighters and bombers well out of harm’s way. While 71 of the 103 missiles fired were reportedly successfully intercepted by Syrian forces, not a single aircraft was lost as a result of the wide berth they gave Syrian airspace. Neighbouring Israel, another longstanding adversary of Damascus, has adopted a similar strategy in light of heavy losses incurred when operating fighters over Syrian territory.
Recent reports indicate that Russia is set to provide Damascus with the S-300 PMU-2, one of its most capable air defence platforms specialised in targeting enemy aircraft. The air defence system is capable of engaging up to 36 targets and guiding 72 surface to air missiles simultaneously at extreme ranges, and is highly survivable with a redeployment time of just five minutes. Working alongside the Pantsir short ranged system already in Syrian service, which can protect the S-300 from low flying aircraft and attack drones, the system will be able to form a near impenetrable defence when networked with the country's existing missile platforms.
The S-300 PMU-2 is the most capable land based S-300 variant in an anti aircraft role. It is the direct predecessor to the S-400 - which was itself initially to be named S-300 PMU-3. The platform will increase the range at which Syrian forces are able to engage enemy aircraft and missiles, deterring adversaries from launching strikes against the country. While Moscow was initially speculated to be planning to provide Syria with the S-300V, a platform specialised in countering missiles attacks but less capable against combat aircraft, the S-300 PMU-2 will pose a significantly greater threat to neighbouring Israel. The platform’s range and precision will allow Syria’s armed forces to shoot down combat aircraft well into in Israeli airspace, including potentially over Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv itself depending on where on Syrian territory it is deployed. The platform thus poses a significant threat to Israel’s security in light of growing tensions between the two countries - and particularly considering the growing presence of Iranian aligned forces to both Syria and Lebanon which Tel Aviv views as a threat to its very existence.
With the Lebanese militia Hezbollah having inflicted on the Israeli Defence Force the first ever defeat in its history in 2006, Tel Aviv remains highly weary of Iranian aligned armed groups operating its borders. The capabilities of these groups have grown manifold since 2006, with a larger arsenal of more modern weapons and extensive combat experience from waging war against Islamic State and other jihadist groups enhancing their combat readiness. With Israel’s campaign to undermine the deployments of these forces to Syria relying heavily on its ability to conduct airstrikes against targets in Syria and Lebanon, the deployment of the advanced S-300 variant by Damascus, which covers Lebanon’s airspace as well as its own, could well seriously shift the balance of power in the region against Israel’s favour. With Tel Aviv highly casualty averse, and fielding a relatively small fleet of strike fighters (only 25 of its elite F-15I), the risk of losing manned aircraft rather than expendable cruise missiles is intolerable. Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman pledged direct attacks on the S-300 system should it be used against Israeli aircraft, while Russian officials have warned Israel of 'catastrophic consequences' should they launch such a strike. Ultimately while Russia has been highly tolerant of Israeli attacks on Syrian targets, the Western attack on Damascus has led Moscow's to provide its ally with more capable defences, and as a result has done much to compromise Israeli security and further involved Russia in the growing conflict between Israel and its Middle Eastern adversaries. The full consequences of the Western missile attack on Damascus, of which the S-300 deployment by Syria is but one, remain to be seen.