Russia has made an apparent U-turn on its prior signaling that it would supply the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria after this week's major escalation between Syria and Israel, which involved scores of surface-to-surface rockets being fired by both sides, primarily across the contested Golan border, and some 28 Israeli aircraft firing around 60 air-to-surface missiles at Syria during the exchange.
Is this the beginning of a Russian lack of commitment in Syria? Or is this the realization that Syria can stand on its own after creating new rules of engagement with Israel?
Russia is now indicating Syria has "everything it needs" to repel Israeli aggression.
Reuters reports that Putin's personal aide indicated the change in calculus:
The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.
"For now, we're not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems," Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.
The Syrian military already had "everything it needed," Kozhin added.
Late last month Russian Defense Ministry officials caught the world's attention by announcing through state-run RIA that it "plans to deliver new air defense systems to Syria in the near future" after a series of unprovoked Israeli strikes inside Syria, which Israel claims targets Iranian troops and assets. Talk of delivery of the S-300 has been a constant since President Trump ordered a massive tomahawk missile attack on Damascus and other locations on April 13th, ostensibly in retaliation for al-Qaeda linked Jaish al-Islam claims of a chemical attack on civilians by the Syrian Army.
It must also be remembered that this week's exchange of fire began just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded the 10-hour visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and less than a day after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Netanyahu told reporters immediately after the short meeting that he didn't expect Russia to act against Israeli forces as they continue escalating attacks on Syria, supposedly while enforcing their "Iranian red line."
While it's possible that Putin may have personally given a green light for Netanyau to act (or at least discussed understood limitations and conditions), what is certain is that Syria has—given its significant response in the form of between 20 and 50 missiles launched in return fire—imposed new rules of engagement.
Though international reports have consistently pointed to hits on the Israeli side, Israel has apparently been extremely careful in preventing photographs or video of any potential damage on the Israeli side to see the light of day. According to professor of Middle East history Asad AbuKhalil, "Israel censor still hasn’t allowed any reports about casualties or damage."
Syria's current missile defense systems appear to have performed well. The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported, citing a military source, that the army’s air defenses had “shot down dozens of Israeli missiles, preventing most of them from reaching their targets,” however, some of the rockets managed to hit radars and an ammunition depot. But beyond this, the multiple videos purporting to show direct intercepts by Syrian defenses make for a convincing case.
Could it be that Moscow understands that Syria's current Soviet supplied S-200 system (among other integrated systems) is doing just fine against Israeli incursions, and sees no need to further escalate tensions with Tel Aviv? Israel has long promised to attack any S-300 deliveries or installation sites even before they come online.
There's the other possibility that Moscow has in fact decided to move forward with the S-300's for Syria while publicly distancing itself. To train Syrians on the new system would take at least a month, according to past Russian military statements, and would initially involve Russian personnel to man the systems—all of which would further risk escalation with Israel, especially if Israel followed through on threats of striking missile locations with Russians present.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has previously warned that, “We never announced these deliveries as such. However, we said that after the strikes [by the US, France and the UK on Syria], Russia reserves the right to do whatever it deems necessary."
The Russian-made S-300 and S-400 are widely acknowledged to be far superior in their capability and reach that Syria's current S-200 system. If installed—something which now appears unlikely to occur anytime soon—Syria might very well become untouchable. But this is precisely what Israel worries about, as Haaretz noted recently, "With Putin's S-300, Assad's army could even 'lock-on' IAF aircraft as they take off from bases within Israel." And as one Israeli defense analyst put it, "Israel should be worried."
For now, however, it could be that Netanyahu's lobbying worked. Or perhaps Israel is already worried that Syria seems to an impressive degree already deterring some of the Israeli barrage even with its current 30-year old systems.