by Paul Iddon.
The recent build-up of Russian aircraft, anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment in western Syria has given one regional country cause for concern — Israel.
The nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 powers over the summer led to Moscow announcing that it will finally deliver sophisticated S-300 missile defense systems to Tehran. Which Iran had originally ordered them nearly a decade ago. This infuriated the Israeli government, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to declare that Israel would reserve the right to send advanced arms to the Ukraine.
However these tensions have seemingly cooled after a cordial meeting between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. During the meeting, Netanyahu insisted that Russia’s presence in Syria should not give cover to any Syrian transfer of advanced anti-air/ship missiles to Israel’s enemy, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah (for details about the meeting between Netanyahu and Putin see Jeffrey Mankoff, “Netanyahu’s Moscow Meeting“, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 21.09.2015).
Putin reasoned that Syrians would pose no threat to the Israelis. “They have their own government to save,” Putin said. Netanyahu claimed that both leaders had agreed to a “mechanism” to avoid clashing in Syria.
Since at least January 2013, Israel has launched intermittent strikes into Syria. Most of the attacks to date have been air strikes targeting missiles Israel does not want to see in the hands of Hezbollah. However, there are unconfirmed reports that one explosion in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia resulted from a cruise missile launched from an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine. Whatever the cause, that explosion destroyed a stockpile of advanced Russian-made Yakhont anti-ship missiles.
During Israel’s 34-day war with the Hezbollah in 2006, Hezbollah successfully crippled Israeli corvette INS Hanit with a Chinese-made C-802 anti-ship missile. Additionally, Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal damaged dozens of Merkava tanks in the latter days of that war. So it’s no surprise that Israel is worried Hezbollah could acquire much more sophisticated missiles which could, in turn, threaten the Israeli Air Force’s domination of the skies. Air superiority has long been an integral part of Israel’s military strategy.
Netanyahu also wants to ensure that both Israel and Russia come to an understanding in Syria, where both armed forces are operating. Russia is expanding its defenses around its Latakia airfield with SA-22 Greyhound missiles, according to Reuters. These are relatively short-range weapons and nothing like the S-300, presumably there just to guard the base.
Additionally, the deployment of four highly advanced Russian Air Force Su-30 Flanker air superiority fighters indicates that Russia is seeking to deter the U.S.-led aerial coalition from completely dominating the skies over Syria. Especially over the remaining quarter-or-so of Syria which remains under Assad’s grip.
But we need some perspective. Historically, Russia’s surge into Syria is nothing like the Soviet Union’s active aid to Israel’s adversaries. Before 1979, Egypt was a major Soviet arms client in the Middle East. Following Egypt’s devastating military defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel and the subsequent Israeli takeover of the Sinai Peninsula, Cairo waged a protracted air war along its frontier. In a last ditch effort to save face and get some edge over their Israeli adversaries, the Egyptians received SA-2 and SA-3 air-defense missiles from Moscow (the S-300’s of the day). The Soviets also dispatched MiG-21 Fishbed’s flown by Soviet pilots but marked with Egyptian Air Force insignia.
That deployment was initially to defend critical Egyptian assets from Israeli offensive air strikes into the Egyptian heartland. However the Egyptians and their patrons sought to undercut Israeli air superiority by deploying those missiles close to the Suez Canal. So close in fact that they threatened Israeli jets operating on both sides of canal.
Israel was aware of the Soviet-manned MiGs and had avoided offensive operations on the Egyptian side of Suez. However this build-up led to an ultimate confrontation. On July 30 1970, Israeli F-4 Phantom II’s and Dassault Mirage III jets shot down five Soviet-piloted Fishbeds.
According to the Soviet diplomat Yevgeny Primakov in 1971, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared that if there was another war with Egypt, the Israelis would fight it. “If any aircraft get in our way, we’ll shoot them down,” Meir said. A not too subtle reference to the recent downing of those Soviet MiGs. When questioned by what exactly she meant however, Primakov later claimed, she responded by stating, “In 1948 [war] we shot down five British planes.”
The network of missile batteries the Soviets helped Egypt set up along the Suez Canal were instrumental in hindering the Israeli Air Force’s ability to gain air superiority in the early phases of the 1973 Yom-Kippur War and shielded the massive Egyptian force that crossed that canal from air attack. Near the end of that war Soviet crews even fired surface-to-surface Scud missiles at the Israeli Army in the Sinai.
In the early 1980s, Syria built a labyrinth of Soviet-made surface-to-air missile networks in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley to deter Israel and provide Syrian forces with a defensive aerial umbrella under which to operate. Israel destroyed that missile network and a large number of Syrian MiG-21 and MiG-23 jet fighters (using its own much more sophisticated F-15 and F-16 jet fighters) in engagements throughout the summer of 1982.
Those engagements saw Israel’s Air Force destroy 29 mainly fixed Syrian SAM sites and shot down a staggering 85 Syrian aircraft for the loss of a mere two of its own aircraft to ground fire. A devastating blow to Damascus and an embarrassment for its patron in Moscow.
Damascus remains one of Moscow’s clients. Doubtlessly, Israel has its own strategic concerns about the deployment of Russian forces. While Assad remains an enemy of the Israeli state, Moscow clearly isn’t sending in forces to prop-up Assad in the midst of a Syrian-Israeli confrontation over, say, the Golan Heights. The 1973 Yom-Kippur War — and the Soviet’s aid to Egypt — would serve as an apt precedent to today’s Russian deployment if that were the case. Which it clearly is not.
That being said, the Israeli military is likely drawing up new wide ranging contingency plans which encompass the new reality emerging on the ground. If that does prove to be the case, the aforementioned historical examples may become highly relevant precedents.