On October 16, the Israeli Air Force launched a precision attack, in the Damascus area, against a Russian-supplied S-200 air-defense battery under the control of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The aerial raid was conducted partly in response to a March incident involving its aircraft being targeted by air-defense assets in Syria (Gazeta, October 16). The Israeli operation, reportedly successful, was met with a muted response in both Russian and Syrian media, perhaps linked to the attack coinciding with the bilateral meeting, in Tel Aviv, of Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman (see EDM, October 17). Indeed, the coverage and rhetoric in response to the attack on the S-200 battery contrasted sharply with reporting on earlier incidents involving the Israeli Air Force operating in Syria (Riafan.ru, October 16).
Most Russian media preferred to focus on the bilateral meeting between Shoigu and Lieberman and their respective delegations, making clear that Moscow is seeking to end its operations in Syria—though it does not intend to withdraw its forces from this Middle Eastern country. The Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) commenced operations in Syria in September 2015, in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime and allegedly focused on countering terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State. But from the onset, Russia’s force-protection efforts were stepped up and reinforced by the creation of a series of “air-defense bubbles,” with deployment of strategic and tactical assets ranging from the S-400 to the Pantsir-S1. These air-defense systems were intended to fulfil a number of functions, from protecting Russian bases to sending strategic signals to other actors about the need for de-confliction and caution due to the VKS operations. During the process of building the air-defense network, Moscow also entered an agreement with Damascus to form a joint Russian-Syrian air defense (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, May 10, 2016).
A de-confliction agreement between Israel and Russia has reportedly functioned well. Though, in recent months, the Israeli military has launched targeted attacks in Syria and has frequently conducted reconnaissance flights using Lebanese air space. In March 2017, while carrying out routine aerial reconnaissance from Lebanon, an Israeli Air Force platform was fired on from a battery of S-200 surface-to-air missiles (SAM). In the aftermath, both sides traded threats. Finally, on October 16, the Israeli Air Force took action against a Syrian SAM system, located 50 kilometers east of Damascus, though it honored the de-confliction agreement with Moscow and provided warning to the Russian military of the unfolding operation (Krasnaya Vesna, October 16).
Pavel Ivanov assessed the incident and its implications in a detailed article in Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, noting that the result of the operation remains unclear, with Damascus claiming only partial damage was inflicted. First, Ivanov noted some of the key features of the Israeli attack. The Israeli Air Force deployed advanced versions of the F-35. An undisclosed number of F-15Is or F-16Is were used as well, though it is not clear if they launched cruise missiles to strike the target or GPS-guided bombs. Other reports allege the SAA SAM system fired on Israeli jets first (Wynetnews.com, October 16). The warning given to the Russian side was described as occurring in “real time,” suggesting it was close enough to the actual attack not to allow any room for interference or assistance to the SAA (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October, 24).
As Ivanov observes, Israel’s real security interests in Syria lie in concern about chemical weapons, countering Hezbollah and monitoring the rise of Iranian influence. To date, Israeli attacks within Syria have proved to be targeted, carefully avoiding the risk of escalation and paying close attention to Russia’s ongoing operations in the country. However, Ivanov raised some concerns, similar to ones that were aired in the aftermath of the United States’ cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat in April 2017. Specifically, Ivanov scrutinized the real value of Russian air-defense systems and the much-publicized air-defense bubbles in Syria. He identified that the SAA fields Buk-M2Es and the Pantsir-S1s among other systems. Ivanov highlighted the importance of identifying the missile or bomb type used in the Israeli attack to try to evaluate whether these air-defense systems might have had a role to play. The S-200, Buk-M2E or Pantsir-S1 certainly did not prevent the attack; but if the ordnance was a cruise missile, then in theory the Pantsir-S1 could have proved effective. Ivanov concludes that the SAA forces are to blame due to “poor training” standards. He also raises the possibility that the S-200 battery was not the intended target, but that the Israeli Air Force sought to take out a new asset in the hands of Hezbollah (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October, 24).
A number of issues undermine Ivanov’s analysis and may mask deeper vulnerabilities of Russian air-defense assets in Syria. First of all, blaming the SAA for “poor training” is odd in the sense that the Russian military, with the use of numerous “advisors,” has been actively training the SAA over the past two years—presumably also in the use of Russian-designed and -supplied air-defense systems. Moreover, the Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer author makes no mention of the joint air-defense agreement between Damascus and Moscow, or the fact that Russian VKS operations are mostly intended to aid the al-Assad regime: allowing a foreign power to degrade SAA air defense assets close to the Syrian capital surely represents questionable support. Of course, there may be other factors involved that are not public and that disposed Moscow to effectively turn a blind eye to the incident (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, October, 24; Riafan.ru, October 16).
The Israeli action in the area around Damascus on October 16 has apparently not damaged relations with Russia. It has, however, served to again (see EDM, April 10, 11) raise questions about some Russian air-defense assets in the SAA. The Israeli military has proved cautious about undertaking operations in Syria. When engaging targets, it appears to take steps to avoid damage to Russian forces: its air force either circumvents Russia’s air defense bubbles, or simply flies through them. Targeting an SAA-controlled S-200 battery is by no means a game changer, and may have been calculated to send a message to Damascus that the Israeli Air Force is free to act when necessary in Syria and with force protection. Nonetheless, Moscow’s relative silence on the incident is interesting in itself.