(Bloomberg) — Russia will provide advanced S-300 missile systems to Syria and directly link up with the air-defence network of its Middle Eastern ally, stepping up support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad after the downing of a reconnaissance plane last week.
Moscow blamed the shoot-down of the aircraft, which killed 15 Russian servicemen, on Israel, whose planes were attacking targets in Syria at the same time. Israel has long called on Russia not to provide the S-300 system to Syria and in 2013, the Kremlin agreed to put a deal to deliver them on hold.
But after the downing of the plane last week, “the situation has changed,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an address carried live on national television. “We’re confident that these measures will cool ‘hot heads’ and prevent thoughtless moves that threaten our servicemen,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, President Vladimir Putin appeared to take a softer line with Israel than the military, noting that it was Syrian air defences that shot down the plane. In a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, Putin didn’t outline any retaliatory measures, agreeing only to prevent such steps in the future, the Kremlin said in a statement at the time.
But Monday, the Kremlin seemed to take a tougher stance, blaming the downing on “the deliberate actions of Israeli pilots” and saying Israel’s explanations weren’t convincing, according to spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “This can’t but harm our relations,” he said.
Putin spoke to Assad by phone Monday and informed him of the plan to provide the missiles, the Kremlin said in a statement.
Shoigu said the S-300 would be delivered to Syria within two weeks. Syrian air-defence command units will be connected directly to Russian command posts with automated systems that at present are deployed only in Russian units, he said. “Most importantly, this will guarantee that Russian aircraft are identified by Syrian air defences,” he said. Russia will also jam the electronic communications of aircraft attacking targets in Syria, he said.
“This will take Syrian air defences to a new level,” said Anton Lavrov, an independent defence analyst based near Moscow. “It won’t make them invulnerable to Israeli attacks, but it will make things more complicated and raise the risk of losses. It could cause a reaction by Israel or the U.S., including attempts to destroy the system before it’s operational.”
The Defence Ministry released detailed computer simulations over the weekend that it said showed that Israeli planes used the Russian reconnaissance aircraft as cover. Shoigu repeated that allegation Monday. Israeli has denied that, saying its planes had already returned to base when Syrian forces fired the missiles that hit the Russian aircraft.
“Moscow’s decision to provide Syrian forces with S-300 air defence system and Russian personnel to operate them is aimed at making Israel more careful in the vicinity of Russian assets, while also controlling Syrian allies,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Twitter.