S-300 Air Defense: Don't Expect Russia to Stop Shipping Arms to Assad

Israel has requested that Russia halt its shipment of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Syria, fearing that the system will fall into the hands of Hezbollah. Although Russia has annulled arms shipments to Syria previously, escalating support for Western intervention in Syria may only further incentivize Russia to complete its sale.

Syria agreed to purchase four S-300 antiaircraft missile batteries from Russia in 2010 for $900 million. The first shipment could come in three months and the final one by the end of the year. Syrian air defenses are already five times more sophisticated than Libya’s and 10 times more sophisticated than what NATO faced in Serbia. Provision of this cutting-edge technology will only increase the difficulties of enforcing a no-fly zone in the future. This shipment is particularly controversial since Russia and the U.S. recently agreed to convene an international conference to push for negotiation between the rebels and the Assad regime. Continued arms supplies call into doubt Russia’s commitment to actually seek peace at this conference.

Despite Israel’s protests, the S-300 system will not be a large hurdle for that country's advanced air force. The system can be easily spotted because it sends out a distinctive signal, and Israel may have already tested its own jets against such a system while working with Greece. However, this system may pose a larger challenge to the goal creating a no-fly zone over Syria. An S-300 battery is capable of tracking up to 100 incoming aircraft missiles at once and can engage up to a dozen missiles from 90 miles away. To neutralize the Syrian antiaircraft defenses, the U.S. would have to use a salvo of cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers.

Israel has previously protested Russian arms shipments, including most recently the shipment of P-800 Yakhont supersonic antiship missiles, because of Syria’s history of transferring these Russian-made weapons to Hezbollah. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel found Hezbollah using Russian-made antitank and antiship missiles. Despite Israel’s protests, Russia still provided Syria with these weapons, along with Pantsyr-S1 antiaircraft missile and artillery systems and Buk-M2 antiaircraft missiles between 2010 and 2011. Russia considers these defensive weapons and is hence disinclined to believe these shipments escalate tensions in the region.

However, there is also a history of Russia annulling arms shipments to Syria. U.S. and Israeli pressure caused Russia to annul the sale of four MiG-31E fighter planes. And Russia eventually halted its shipment of S-300 batteries to Iran. Russia claimed this was because of UN-imposed sanctions on Iran, but analysts speculate further negotiations may have taken place. The Economist claims that Israel agreed to stop giving supplies to Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war in exchange for the Kremlin stopping its sale of S-300 air defense systems to Iran. Israel has provided $200 million worth of equipment since 2000 to Georgia, but heightened tensions with Russia caused Israel to turn down Georgia’s request for advanced Merkava tanks in 2007. This seems to buttress The Economist’s claim, but the Georgian president denies Israel ever froze arms shipments despite Haaretz’s claims to the contrary. Leaked emails from Stratfor, a global intelligence company, suggest Russia froze its sale of the S-300 system to Iran because Israel provided "data link codes" to hack and misguide Israeli-made Georgian drones, but this is also disputed.

Previous precedents for ceasing arm supplies seem to involve intense U.S. and Israeli pressure or an exchange that benefits Russia. But this time it is unlikely Russia will cooperate because it has nothing to gain from withholding the S-300 batteries. As political support for a no-fly zone grows in the West, continuing this shipment would show Russia’s determination to prevent another Libya-like operation. Contrary to popular belief, Russia does not support Syria solely for monetary gain but because it fears the spread of Islamic radicalism and the loss of its superpower status in the Middle East. Since 2005, defense contracts between Syria and Russia have only amounted to $5.5 billion, and in 2011, Syria accounted for only 5% of Russia’s global arm sales. To maintain Russian influence in the region, Russia needs to protect its ally, Assad. And to the Russians, the S-300 air defense system does not disturb the upcoming conference organized between them and the United States. It only further solidifies their stance that no external military intervention is permitted, and that there must be a political settlement to resolve each side’s differences.