The Syrian civil war is fast assuming a new shape which foreshadows an imminent showdown among concerned parties. Staunchly backing Bashar Assad, Russia unsheathed its claws to dissuade the US, Israel or such European powers as Britain and France from venturing to step into the conflict.
The new shape’s outline is breaking surface.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, Israel is forced to reckon that an air strike against the advanced Russian S-300 missile batteries delivered to Syria, with collateral harm for their crews of Russian officers and advisers, would place it in jeopardy of Moscow’s retaliation, such as the shooting down of Israeli air force jets flying over Syrian or Lebanese airspace.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon strongly implied that an Israel attack was on the cards Tuesday, May 28, when he said that Israel thinks the missiles haven't yet been shipped. But when they are, he said, "we’ll know what to do."
Ya'alon's remark echoed the message Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delivered in person when he visited Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Black Sea villa in Sochi on May 14. Netanyahu warned his host that the delivery to Syria of the S-300 missiles had the potential for putting Israel and Russia on track for a military clash.
But Putin was not swayed in the slightest. He accepted the risk of a military joust with Israel as the price for his all-out championship of Assad.
Tentative Western moves to raise military tension around Syria
After that, US President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron fixed their sights on a political solution of the Syrian mess emerging from the US Secretary of State John Kerry’s discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on an agreed format for a Geneva summit in early June.
But then, they found nothing changed since our report last week (DEBKA-Net-Weekly 585) that the odds on a successful conference – or even getting it off the ground – are low-to-nil.
Moscow still insists on inviting the Iranian government and President Assad’s representatives – or else, they say, the conference is off.
Washington, London and Paris tried motions towards notching up the military tension around Syria to soften the Russian position.
Monday, May 27, US Senator John McCain visited US forces stationed in Turkey and slipped quietly into Syria for a quick interview with Gen. Salem Idris, commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council. Next, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels acceded to the British and French demand and voted to lift their arms embargo against the Syrian rebels.
Moscow moves into position for sending troops to Syria
Although the Europeans had no intention of actually sending arms to the Syrian rebels, only pressuring Moscow, Russia slapped them down with three counter-moves:
1. The EU’s lifting of the arms embargo, they announced, placed the Geneva Summit 2 in doubt;
2. Deliveries of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria would go ahead as a deterrent for foreign intervention. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the missiles a "stabilizing factor" for dissuading "some hotheads" from entering the conflict. This was a jab at Washington, London, Paris and Jerusalem by dismissing them as “hotheads."
3. To show that Moscow means business, four regiments of S-300 air defense systems were deployed at the Ashuluk firing range in southern Russia to check the Russian army’s combat readiness, the Defense Ministry announced. The regiments were airlifted Thursday, May 28, by military transport planes to designated drop zones for a variety of missions simulating the defense of Russian airspace from massive attacks by "enemy" missiles and aircraft.
"The missions will be carried out in conditions of heavy electronic warfare to test the capabilities of the air defense units to the highest limits," the defense ministry said.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources say the southern location of the new concentration of Russian military forces – a total of 8,700 personnel, 185 warplanes and 240 armored vehicles – points to an intention to ship some of those units to Syria.
In the face of hesitant Western military steps, substantial Russian military strength is therefore already on the move.
President Putin has poised his army ready for open Russian military involvement in Syria should the need arise.
Can Russia outdo Israel’s air defense and electronic capabilities this time?
A first regiment of S-300 air defense systems may have already reached Syria – flown in by the giant transport which landed at Latakia Tuesday night, May 28, with 60 tons of unidentified cargo.
Russian land and air forces are in position to follow next.
Moscow is therefore prepared to respond at zero notice to any Western or Israeli military moves against Syria.
Such moves would include any attempt by US, Turkish, British and French air force planes to impose no-fly zones sealed to Syrian warplanes over the embattled country. The S-300 missiles will now be on hand to shoot down any flying intruders on this errand.
Furthermore, any attempt to supply the rebels with advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to offset Syrian Army and Hizballah’s military supremacy (See separate articles in this issue with details) will be thwarted.
The reference by the Russian defense ministry to missions carried out “in conditions of heavy electronic warfare to test the capabilities of the air defense units to the highest limit" is addressed to Israel.
Israel is sure – and so are the Americans – that their super-sophisticated electronic warfare capabilities can shut down the S-300 batteries. Moscow is warning them not to be so sure and that in future strikes against Syria, Israeli Air Force jets may be shot down.
The verbal dueling between Russian and Israeli spokesmen this week brought much closer the moment of truth and a showdown to prove which of the two has got it right.
That proof can only emerge in real combat
This would not be Russia’s first passage of arms with Israel on Syrian soil.
Between1982 and 1986, Israeli warplanes bombed Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries and engaged in dogfights with Syrian Air Force warplanes flown by Russian pilots.
The contest then was between Soviet Russia’s air force and Israel’s superior electronic warfare capabilities.
Much later, in September 2007, the IDF disabled Russian Pantsir-S1 (NATO codename SA-22 Greyhound) systems to clear the way for its raid to destroy the plutonium reactor Iran and North Korea had built in northern Syria.
Now, after six years, the message from Moscow is that, this time, Israel will not be allowed to repeat that feat by knocking out the S-300 missile batteries.
It may be bluff – or not. The only way to find out is to put the Russian S-300 missiles and electronic warfare systems to the test in real combat.
If Russian superiority is then proven, the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah lineup will win a major boost. But if Israel’s electronic warfare and air force capabilities gain the upper hand, Moscow will be seriously set back in its bid for an anti-West alliance under its patronage.