Syrian Missile Sale Slots into Secret Russian Air Defense System for Iran

Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syrian president Bashar Assad, who arrived in Moscow Monday, January 24, will sign a $70 million deal for the sale of 20 SA-18 Igla-S batteries mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers. One of the most effective missiles against low-flying aircraft on the market, the SA-18 is manufactured at the Russian KBM factory near Moscow.
The sale culminates intense quiet exchanges conducted by the US Pentagon and State Department with the Kremlin and Russian defense ministry to prevent the sale to Damascus of the shoulder-launched version of the SA-18 for fear it falling into the hands of Iraqi guerrillas and Hizballah terrorists.
Washington accepted the APC-mounted compromise despite Israel’s complaints. Although 20 batteries do not present a major headache for the Israeli air force, their mobility makes them difficult to target and limits the maneuverability of Israeli planes in Syrian airspace as a deterrent to Damascus war or terror initiatives. The Igla-S is also effective against small targets like reconnaissance drones, helicopters and cruise missiles. Missile experts report that when fired against fighter craft an Igla-S has the effectiveness of two missiles fired in a single round – or five missiles when launched against a cruise missile.
This is Syria’s second important arms purchase in recent months. debkafile‘s military sources were first report its acquisition in East Europe of Kornet AT-14 anti-tank missiles. This purchase provoked a warning from Washington that if this weapon should turn up in Iraq or Lebanon, America will be free to take military action.
debkafile‘s military sources now reveal that the Syrian missile sale is integral to the Kremlin’s new, broad strategic initiative that encompasses secret military assistance to Tehran as well as its overt deals with Damascus. Moscow’s objective is partly to secure its investment in Iran’s nuclear center at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf against the fate of the Saddam Hussein’s French-built Tamuz nuclear center which the Israeli air force bombed out existence 24 years ago.
In the second week of January, Russian defense minister Sergey Ivanov spent five days in Washington setting up the February 24 summit meeting between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in the Slovak capital of Bratislava.
That same week, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 189 revealed that Russian experts from the Raduga OKB engineering group in Dubna near Moscow had just completed the installation of two advanced radar systems around the Bushehr nuclear reactor on the Persian Gulf.
These improved mobile 36D6 systems, Western codenamed Tin Shield, were custom-made to upgrade the air defense radar protecting Iran’s key nuclear facilities from American or Israeli aerial, missile or cruise missile attack.
If that was all, it might have passed without too great a hullabaloo.
However, the fat hit the fire when the Russians were discovered to be building the same system at Iran’s uranium enrichment plants for military purposes in Isfahan in central Iran. It was taken to mean that Moscow has undertaken to secure all of Iran’s nuclear industry from top to bottom – from the installation of sophisticated equipment to military planning and operational cooperation – against American or Israeli attack. Moscow has thus placed a serious impediment in the path of any American and Israel military action to curb Iran’s nuclear armament. This Russian-Iranian cooperation looks like the harbinger of geo-strategic understandings in other places like Afghanistan, India, Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Already, the Russian military umbrella over Iran is emitting diplomatic signals.
And that is not all.
On January 12, the day Russian radar was finally installed at Bushehr and Isfahan, the Kremlin leaked word of a large-scale arms deal afoot with Syria for the delivery of advanced SS-26 road-mobile Iskander-E surface missiles – successor to the Scud, whose 480-kilo multiple warhead can dodge air defense radar systems and electronic jamming – as well as surface-to-air SA-10 (“Grumble”) and SA-18 (“Grouse”) shoulder-launched missiles.
The first can engage several targets at varying altitudes simultaneously including raiding aircraft and cruise or tactical missiles. The SA-18 is an improved version of the Strela with a 2-kilo high-explosive warhead fitted with a contact and grazing fuse, aerodynamic improvements, extended effective range and greater speed. The SA-18 has a maximum range of 5.2 km and maximum altitude of 3.5 km.
Sale of this missile package was not expected to go through in its entirety – certainly not the Iskander. The shoulder-launched version of the SA-18 was deemed too flagrant a provocation for Washington to tolerate in view of its applications for Iraqi insurgents and Hizballah terrorists. The leak was therefore intended as a partial red herring to camouflage Moscow’s real plans.
What really worries Washington and Jerusalem is the possibility of Assad and Putin putting their heads together on the same 36D6 radar system Moscow has supplied Iran.
Our military sources describe the Tin Shield 36D6 as a mobile radar system designed to detect air targets and perform friend-or-foe identification. It is highly effective in detecting low, medium and high altitude targets moving at almost any speed, including winged missiles and American or Israeli cruise missiles. It is capable of providing the target and bearing of active jamming, as well as integrated computer-aided systems of control and guidance of anti-aircraft missile complexes.
Tin Shield can operate independently as an observation and air detection post, as part of computer-aided control systems or as an element in an anti-air guided missile complex, where it carries out reconnaissance and targeting.
If Syria gets this sophisticated system, a Russian-coordinated Iranian-Syrian-Lebanese radar barrier will rise with three serious consequences that go beyond the balance of strength in the Middle East:
1. The 36D6 radar system deployment, if acquired by Syria as well Iran, will confine US aerial operations in Iraq to a narrow corridor hemmed in by sophisticated Russian radar and reconnaissance systems.
2. Its deployment at nuclear sites in northern Iran near the Afghan border will obstruct any American air operation mounted from the north against Iran from Afghan bases, while the Russian radar system’s presence in Syria will hinder an American or Israeli strike against Iran from the west.
3. Moscow’s military backing for Iran and Syria is tantamount to sympathy for their diplomatic postures and extends to their sponsorship of Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist organizations. First overt indications of Moscow’s new direction surfaced in an official Russian foreign ministry denunciation last week, the first since the 1990s, of the American threat of new sanctions against Syria for sponsoring “freedom fighters” – Syria’s term for Palestinian terrorist organizations like Hamas and the Jihad Islami.
How far the Kremlin intends to take its new policy thrust in the Middle East will become clearer after the Assad-Putin talks in Moscow this week and the Putin-Bush Bratislava summit in a month.

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