Russia Takes Harder Line Against Israeli Attacks on Syria By Bolstering Syrian Air Defences - Reports

An apparently growing assertiveness by Moscow to protect the territorial sovereignty of its longstanding Middle Eastern security partner the Syrian Arab Republic has been observed since late July and into early August by multiple Russian, Arabic, U.S. and Israeli news outlets.

 On July 29, the Times of Israel suggested that “Russia might be testing” the new Israeli administration of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett which came to power on 13 June, citing the downing of Israeli missiles by Syrian air defences which it was implied was likely done with Russian assistance. Israel Hayom warned that Moscow could soon "clip Israel's wings" by hindering its aircraft's ability to operate in Syrian airspace, blaming the change on the new Bennett government which it argued was “seen as weak, inexperienced, and lacking in intellectual depth." 

This was in contrast with the preceding administration of Benjamin Netanyahu which had maintained more cordial ties with Moscow. Forbes interpreted the shift as signalling and the Russian MoD's changing rhetoric as signalling both Tel Aviv and the Joe Biden administration to negotiate "new and clearer parameters for deconfliction" in Syria. Saudi Arabia’s London based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, citing an unnamed "Russian official," claimed that Russia had had a "change of heart” and had "enhanced" Syrian air defences and provided new equipment to improve its existing network. 

Israel and Syria have been technically at war for close to three-quarters of a century, with the former having occupied the latter’s strategically located Golan Heights since 1967 and the two having fought multiple significant wars both directly and by proxy. Shortly after the outbreak of a major insurgency in Syria in 2011, which was heavily sponsored by Western powers, Turkey, Israel and a number of Arab Gulf states, Israel began to conduct significant air strikes into the country often claiming to be targeting assets belonging to Iran, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and their affiliates. 

Syria’s airspace was among the very best defended in the Middle East in the final decade of the Cold War, with the country being furnished with a wide range of advanced Soviet armaments from 1982 including the world’s first S-200 air defence systems ever exported and some of the first exported MiG-25 Foxbat heavy interceptors and MiG-29 and MiG-23MLD fighters. 

Israel was deterred from moving into Syrian airspace in the 1980s by this concentration of force, as well as by a Soviet pledge to come to Syria’s aid if attacks, although after the Cold War’s end this changed drastically with Damascus not only being less able to afford high-end hardware but also denied the right to purchase air defence systems it was able to pay for such as S-300s and MiG-31 interceptors.

In contrast to the Soviet era,, Russia has usually allowed Israel to strike targets across Syria so long as a warning was given to evacuate Russian forces which may be at a potential site. 

After Israeli fighters allegedly used a Russian Il-20 aircraft as cover against Syrian air defences in September 2018, however, Moscow moved to provide Syria with the S-300 system requested many years prior. The system, while technically part of the Syrian military, has remained under the control of Russian officers and has such as not been used to respond to Israeli or Turkish attacks. 

Syria’s recent successes in neutralising Israeli missiles have been gained primarily by Buk-M2 medium-ranged air defence systems, a lighter, lower end and shorter ranged counterpart to the S-300, while Syrian downings of Israeli fighters, the number of which it's disputed but stands at least one, were reportedly done with Cold War-era S-200 systems.

Russia has the potential to improve Syria’s air defences by providing more advanced short and medium ranged systems such as the Pantsir-SM or Buk-M3, as well as by providing targeting data from its own S-300V4 and S-400 air defence systems deployed in the country and the lower end S-300PMU-2 belonging to Syria but under Russia’s control. 

Providing Syria with control of the S-300PMU-2, and encouraging it to make use of its own combat aircraft such as the newly delivered MiG-29SMT jets which entered service in 2020, represent more escalators means of drawing a harder line against Israeli incursions into Syrian airspace. Russian Su-35 air superiority fighter aircraft, and on at least one occasion a Su-34 strike fighter, has intercepted Israeli and Turkish attacking aircraft on multiple occasions particularly from 2019 to prevent attacks.

As counterinsurgency efforts in Syria largely come to a close, with the exception of the northern Idlib governate where Al Qaeda linked militants remain under Turkish protection, it is likely that Moscow will draw a harder line against violations of Syrian sovereignty to help its longstanding defence partner return to stability - drawing a line under the wartime period where aggression against the country from the air had been normalised. 

The gradual rebuilding of the Syrian Air Force’s air defences capability, likely with the provision of further MiG-29SMT units armed with R-77 long-range missiles, and possibly in future with more capable aircraft such as the MiG-29M, is expected to play an important role in reestablishing Syrian sovereignty over its airspace. 

This will also gradually reduce the country's dependence on Russian support for its defence, and allow Russia to reorient its military facilities in the country more towards power projection abroad than to stabilising Syria itself. 

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