The accidental downing of a Russian military plane by the Syrian air defence system is no longer accidental because of the fact the Russian authorities believe that the incident occurred due to the activity of a third party, Israel. The incident itself notwithstanding, the developments following it have also confirmed how Russia sees this incident as a spoiler activity, aimed at inciting military confrontation, not with the Russians necessarily, but with the Syrians, or may be its purpose was just to frighten the Iranians and the Hezbollah. Whatever the intention, the Russian investigation has concluded that Israel was in violation of the 2015 Russian-Israeli agreement and that, as the Russian Ministry of Defence said in its press briefing, Israel perhaps “has no appreciation for the level of relations with Russia.” What the briefing shows is the eroding trust between the two countries, and the developments following this erosion, i.e., the Russian decision to supply advance air defence system to Syria, only indicate that the Russians don’t think that such incidents will never occur in future if things are left unchanged; hence, the decision to change things in Syria.
By supplying Syria with modern S-300 missile system, the Russians have almost imposed a de facto no fly zone over Syria. The S-300 missile system plus the automated air defence management system will certainly prevent such “friendly fire” incidents in Syria, giving the Russians and Syrians the necessary capability to have full command over Syrian air-space. It will also put the Russians on a powerful negotiating position vis-à-vis other actors of the war.
While this system will enable Syria to track and attack Israeli aircrafts right after their take-off, even more importantly, the deployment of S-300 system will effectively stop the US from launching missile-strikes as and when they deem fit.
On a larger geo-political scale, the deployment of this system will also prevent Israel from launching strikes against Iran/Hezbollah as well, making the Russian decision a potential disaster for Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Syrian war and the many actors involved in it. Although Israel and the US can still attack Syria or launch missile strikes because of the fact that the Russian and Syrian ability to intercept incoming attacks is limited by the available supply, there is no gainsaying that the presence of this defence system and the air management system will make it a lot more difficult for them to make successful strikes than had been the case until now.
The purpose of this deployment has not been diplomatically couched as just modernization of Syrian defence. As the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said without mincing words, “We are convinced that these measures will cool down the ‘hot heads’ and keep them from ill-conceived actions threatening our troops.”
The reaction from the US and Israel to this supply has equally shown that the US-Israel nexus, although they understand that the ground situation has dramatically changed, knows the danger involved in launching strikes at this stage. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Putin in a telephone call that supplying advanced weapon systems to “irresponsible hands will increase the dangers in the region,” and John Bolton advised Russia to reconsider the decision, saying the new missile system would be a “significant escalation” to already high tensions in the region.
While it is unclear, and sounds even contradictory, how a defence system will cause escalation unless attacked upon first, the fact remains that Russian decision to clip Israeli ability to attack will have far reaching consequences for Syria. And, while it is possible that the US and Israel might adopt ‘we don’t care’ attitude vis-à-vis the deployment of this system, hoping to put pressure on Russia so that it might blink and reverse its decision, it is also possible that this deployment might force them, particularly Israel, to renegotiate terms of engagement and make a new deal.
If Israel is any more prudent now than it was when it indirectly forced the downing of Russian plane, it should read the message from Russia about respecting the Russia-Israel defence cooperation agreements and limiting its Syrian intervention considerably.
For Israel, digesting this new reality will be difficult. But it is necessary for Russia to make Israel control its rampant and irresponsible behavior (out of 200 strikes Israel did in Syria last year, only 10 per cent of these were properly conveyed to the Russians in advance) and avoid such further incidents that can spark escalation. And as Russia made it clear, the defence system is hardly against any country; it is only against such attacks as Israel does, and arbitrary violation of Syrian airspace, violations that can cause bigger conflicts to start.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.