It may seem strange that Moscow has delivered its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria this month. The decision came after the Assad regime accidentally downed a Russian reconnaissance IL-20 plane in northern Syria on Sept. 17 using the less sophisticated S-200. Why give a more advanced version of that weapon to an incompetent ally who just shot down your plane? Wouldn’t the delivery only raise the risk for Russians operating in Syrian airspace?
Perhaps. But for the Kremlin, the delivery of the S-300 is about one thing: assertion of further dominance in Syria. It is a political statement to the West, and everyone else in the region: Russia is here to stay.
To be sure, the IL-20 incident was embarrassing for Moscow. It exposed the incompetence of both Russia and its Syrian ally. Moscow’s claim – that during the incident Israel intentionally used the Il-20 as cover for its F-16s to attack in Syria and informed their Russian counterparts “only one minute” prior to the strike was an absurd accusation. It was a clumsy attempt to save face.
Yet giving Assad the S-300 provides Putin with additional leverage over the West and support to Moscow’s allies. It doesn’t threaten Iran and Hezbollah or other terrorist groups in Syria, but it could potentially limit Israeli and Turkish freedom of military action, or at least make it more complicated.
At the same time, the S-300 gives Assad (and therefore Moscow) options they didn’t previously have to undermine the U.S. position in Syria. It potentially will increase Syria's Integrated Air Defense System (IADS) capability and thus provide additional cover to Iran's and Assad’s activities in Syria. It could also complicate U.S. and coalition operations against ISIS.
The S-300 series — basically a predecessor of the current-generation S-400 – is already the crown jewel of Russia’s surface-to-air exports, and if it proves successful it may further bolster Moscow’s position as an arms supplier of choice for the region.
Assad’s control of Syria remains far from certain. Notwithstanding the recent Russia-Turkey deal, the battle for Idlib, Syria, is likely to be joined in the near future. And there a real possibility of conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria. The U.S. will remain in Syria and continue working with Syrian Democratic Forces. France and Britain continue to carry out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. For Putin this situation means one thing — using all leverage to ensure Moscow retains influence.
Meanwhile, many critical details about the S-300 sale remain unknown. These include: How many S-300s did Assad get; what variant of the system did Syria receive; where will the systems be deployed; will Syria have to pay for the equipment and, most importantly, who will operate the S-300s?
Learning to operate an S-300 takes months of serious training. Russian defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced it will take three months to train Syrians to operate the S-300. Yet the Syrians have been deploying the Soviet-provided S-200 over 30 years, and still managed to shoot down a Russian plane. Putin’s confidence in Syrian military competence is undoubtedly low and casts doubt on Shoigu’s deadline. But the implications of Russians operating these systems in Syria — against Israel — could be significant and/or dangerous.
At the same time, Moscow may lose influence in Syria with the delivery of the S-300. Up until now, Putin maintained good relations with everyone in the Middle East, even as he clearly preferred the anti-American Shia bloc. But it’s unclear if he will continue to maintain this balance.
The S-300 is a powerful weapon but it has limitations. It has been around since the 1970s. U.S. and Israeli militaries have studied it for years and know its capabilities. Air surveillance and battle management also matters. If the air surveillance system is too slow to see an aircraft, for example, it doesn’t matter how strong the S-300 system is. Nor is it clear how Syrian and Russian air defense assets will integrate into a single automated system, despite Shoigu’s claim that this process will be completed by Oct. 20. Finally, if Syria only receives one S-300 battery — as has been rumored — the transfer will be more symbolic than effectual.
Thus, for all the problems it may create, the deployment of S-300 won’t be a game changer. As long as the U.S. remains in Syria and works to push back against Iran, which the Trump administration fortunately has decided to do, Moscow may not necessarily gain the regional advantage it seeks. Ironically, Moscow’s decision could even undercut the very position it meant to bolster.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. She previously worked at the Atlantic Council and the Peterson Institute for International Economics and is a former analyst for a U.S. military contractor in Afghanistan.