Suspected Israeli aircraft bombed a military complex on the outskirts of Damascus’ international airport Sunday in what Syrian state television said was an attack on warehouses housing an advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft system.
The attack would be consistent with repeated Israeli pledges that it would not allow Syria to deploy the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system and raised the question of whether Russia had sent new components of the system to Syria, perhaps in violation of an August pledge not to complete delivery under terms of a United Nations arms embargo.
The Israeli military offered no comment on the report.
The government-operated Syrian Arab News Agency blamed Israel directly for the strikes and said they targeted “two safe areas in the Damascus countryside in al Dimas and near Damascus International Airport.”
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Video accompanying the government television report showed jet aircraft dropping anti-aircraft flares as they zoomed through the sky – supposedly the raiding planes – followed by explosions in the distance. The video was similar to postings on Twitter and other social media by users claiming to have witnessed the attack. All the video indicated the air strikes came during daylight hours.
The Russian sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria has long been controversial. Israel first objected to the sale when it was agreed to in 2007, fearing that the system, with a range of nearly 50 miles, would allow the Syrians to down Israeli aircraft while still in Israeli airspace. Considered one of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft defense systems in the world, it is said to be able to track as many as 100 targets simultaneously.
An agreement to sell the system to Iran collapsed under international pressure in 2010.
Russia and Syria have both acknowledged that some S-300 components have been delivered. But Russia said in August that it would suspend delivery of the complete system due to the arms sale embargo the U.N. has placed on Syria. While Russia has used its veto in the U.N. Security Council to block a complete blockade on arms sales to Syria, it acknowledged that other sanctions covered the S-300, which would represent a massive upgrade in Syria’s air defense capabilities.
An Aug 11, 2014, report by Russia’s Interfax-AVN military news agency said the decision to cancel further deliveries of the S-300 system had been made by Russia’s “political leadership.” It quoted Konstantin Buryulin, the deputy director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, as saying that already delivered components “will be disposed of” if an “appropriate application” is not found. IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly first reported the statement on Aug 14, 2014.
It’s unclear if the delivered components have any significant military value or could be used for purposes other than the S-300. It’s also unknown if the components might be of use to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim political movement that has waged war against Israel for decades.
Israel has warned that it would strike Syrian targets if it saw any effort to transfer war technology to Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to help defend the government of President Bashar Assad against rebels seeking to topple him.
On at least three occasions in the last two years, suspected Israeli jets struck targets either in Damascus or along the Lebanese border – one strike occurred in Lebanese territory – to stop what reportedly were transfers of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Israel has not officially acknowledged responsibility for the attacks.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a brutal month long war in 2006 and while the border has essentially been quiet since, Hezbollah officials frequently refer to having increased their military capability and technology and claim to have new weapons systems that can hit any part of Israel from Lebanon.