Over the last few months, the international media has abounded with speculation about Russia’s intention to send sophisticated S-300 air defence missile systems to Syria.
The Australian newspaper recently reported that Russia had indeed signed a contract “to provide Syria with anti-aircraft missiles,” though it is not clear when the deal will be finalized.
Hearsay and hyperbolic rhetoric in the media have made it hard to comprehend what this development really means for Israel, and for the region at large. Going back to the basic facts is critical in our understanding the broader issues.
What ultimately gives these weapons their dangerous potential is the strategic context in which they are placed. Syria already has a relatively robust air defence system, but the addition of the S-300 air defence system would strengthen its capabilities and afford Syria unique strategic capacities. Not only would it put planes taking off from central Israel within the missile’s range, but it would also provide Syria with defences at higher altitude and with better tracking capability. In short, all Israel’s major towns and cities would fall within Syria’s long air range, and Israel’s self-defence capabilities would be greatly diminished.
Russia’s declared intention to deliver these dangerous systems, which can intercept fighter jets and cruise missiles, has created a tense stalemate between Israel, Syria, Russia and the US, with Netanyahu vowing to do“whatever it takes”to prevent the weapons being deployed. Syria has responded by declaring that any additional attacks by Israel will precipitate immediate retaliation.
What is changing most in Israel’s north is the build-up of Hezbollah terrorists, who, backed by a growing Iranian military presence on the ground, have become engaged in combat operations against President Assad’s opponents.
Therefore, aside from the unique strategic capabilities that the S-300 air-defence missiles would afford Syria, the most immediate threat facing Israel is Syria’s strong alliance with Hezbollah, and its willingness to deliver weapons to the terror organization. Currently, Israel is focusing primarily on the supply to Hezbollah of surface- to-surface missiles. Armed with these weapons, the terrorist organization would be capable of striking Israeli cities.
The danger of this development was highlighted in a televised speech, where Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah said his group would support “anyone seeking to target Israel in the occupied Golan Heights.”
It is difficult to exaggerate the severity of this threat. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “after the S-300s are put into service, a repeat of the Libyan scenario — the imposition of a no-fly zone over the country — would be extremely difficult.” The Israeli government, too, subscribes to this assessment.
Earlier in the week the Times Of Israelreported that Israel had warned Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, of a “descent into war should Russia make the delivery.” Netanyahu said that if acquired by Assad, the S-300 “is likely to draw us into a response, and could send the region deteriorating into war.”
Many Western nations have repeatedly urged Russia to block the sale of the weapon system, which they argue could complicate any international intervention in Syria’s escalating civil war and greatly disrupt the balance of power in the region.
This view has also been adopted by the Australian government, with Foreign Minister Bob Carr describing the civil war’s “destabilising regional impact.” In an official statement recently published in the Australian Jewish News, Carr staunchly supported Israel’s right to self-defence. He stated; “Israel has consistently said that it will take action to stop transfers of this kind. Hezbollah has a long history of attacks against Israel. The Australian government respects Israel’s right to take necessary and appropriate steps to defend itself.”
But the obvious question to emerge is ‘where does the US fit in’?
The Obama administration’s response to the crisis in Syria has generated widespread debate, with many criticizing its seeming ‘policy of inaction.’
Initially, Obama proclaimed that chemical weapon use would be the “red line” for a more forceful American intervention. On 4 June, the Age reported that both the US government and the UN had released findings that confirmed Assad’s use of these weapons. Additionally, The Huffington Post reported that Britain and France had also confirmed that the nerve gas sarin was used “multiple times and in a localized way” in Syria, “at least once by the regime.”
Despite these findings U.S Secretary of State, John Kerry, has since declared that no ‘forceful’ initiatives would be taken, but instead noted the US government’s intention to co-host a peace conference with Russia, dubbed ‘Geneva 2.’ According to Kerry, the conference aims to “reach a negotiated settlement on Syria involving Russia that extricates the al-Assad regime without a U.S-led military intervention.”
But so far the facts speak for themselves. Whilst Kerry noted that the transfer of advanced missile defence systems from Russia to Syria would be a “destabilizing” factor for Israel’s security, no action has been sought.
So, what are the strategic implications for Israel?
The twofold threat of the Assad- Hezbollah alliance, places Israel under dire threat. Since January, Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria that are believed to have destroyed weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.
Two weeks ago Netanyahu said “the Israeli government is acting in a responsible, determined and level-headed manner in order to guarantee the safety of the citizens of Israel, in accordance with the policy we have set of preventing as much as possible the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. We will continue to guarantee Israel’s security interests.”
The last week has seen an escalation of violence on Israel’s border with Syria, with Netanyahu warning that Syrian President Bashar Assad had made a “serious decision” to open a front with Israel along the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu’s statements do not appear to exclude a possible invasion of the demilitarized zone in the Golan should the situation deteriorate. An outcome many believe could erupt into a full-fledged regional war.
Much is unknown about the current status of Syria’s weapon acquisition. However, the absence of an international blueprint for solving the crisis makes it increasingly likely that this conflict will proliferate on the battlefield in Syria and the Golan, rather than in diplomatic dialogues in Geneva.
We will continue to keep the community informed on the issue.
Media and Advocacy Director
Zionist Federation of Australia